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First lady makes unscheduled stop in Haiti

First lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden made an unannounced visit to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday, taking a helicopter tour of the city ravaged by an earthquake three months ago.
/ Source: Reuters

Michelle Obama made an unannounced visit to earthquake-hit Haiti on Tuesday at the start of her first solo international trip as first lady.

The 46-year-old wife of President Barack Obama made the stopover in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince en route to an April 13-15 visit to Mexico. She arrived with Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden.

Immediately after the catastrophic January 12 earthquake that Haiti's government says may have killed more than 300,000 people, President Obama ordered thousands of U.S. soldiers and aid workers to spearhead a huge international relief effort to help the impoverished Caribbean state.

"First lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden are visiting Haiti to underscore to the Haitian people and the Haitian government the enduring U.S. commitment to help Haiti recover and rebuild, especially as we enter the rainy and hurricane seasons," the White House said in a statement.

Obama and Biden flew over the wrecked capital in a helicopter before meeting Haitian leaders.

Although most Haitians have unstintingly praised the U.S. assistance, many have asked why Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, has not yet visited Haiti, whose independence in 1804 following a slave revolt created the world's first independent black republic.

Michelle Obama's visit may go some way toward assuaging such feelings in a country -- just two hours flying time from the United States -- where her husband is very popular.

Other leaders, such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a number of Latin American presidents, have visited Haiti since the quake, described by some experts as the deadliest natural disaster in modern history.

International aid workers are striving to care for more than 1 million homeless Haitian quake survivors who are camped out in makeshift tent and shelter communities sprawled across the capital and in other damaged towns.

Relief agencies have started moving some survivors to a more secure prepared settlement.

But fears persist that unless safer, more permanent shelter is found for the hundreds of thousands of homeless quake victims, the imminent rains, and the hurricane season starting on June 1, could cause another humanitarian catastrophe.

Some aid groups have criticized the government and the United Nations for being slow to set up alternative safer sites.

At a donors' conference in New York on March 31, governments, multilateral institutions and non-governmental organizations from around the world pledged nearly $10 billion for Haiti's reconstruction.