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UN says Haiti quake worst disaster it has confronted

January 16, 2010

People rummage through an empty collapsed school in Cite Soleil in Port au Prince. —Reuters

GENEVA Haitis quake is the worst disaster ever confronted by the United Nations, a spokeswoman said Saturday, with entire areas essentially obliterated and local services non-existent.

“This is a historic disaster. We have never been confronted with such a disaster in the UN memory. It is like no other,” Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told AFP.

She noted that at least local government structures remained after the 2004 tsunami hit Indonesias Aceh province, but in the Haiti town of Leogane, for example, all public services were lost in the earthquake.

The earthquake “has decapitated the city,” said Byrs, pointing out that this made coordination of aid efforts all the more difficult.

Byrs had earlier said that a UN assessment team surveying towns to the west of Port-au-Prince found that up to 90 percent of the buildings in Leogane had been damaged or destroyed by Tuesdays 7.0 magnitude quake.

“No local government infrastructure remains,” she said.

“According to the local police, between 5,000 to 10,000 people have been killed and most bodies are still in the collapsed buildings,” she said.

The assessment team also surveyed Carrefour, with 334,000 inhabitants, and found that 40-50 percent of buildings in the worst-affected areas in the town had been destroyed.

The situation was similar in Gressier, which counted 25,000 inhabitants before the earthquake. Buildings destroyed there included the police station.

“Search and rescue teams are in these areas,” said Byrs, who stressed that there was an “urgent need for medical care.” The situation in the three towns indicate the scale of the destruction beyond the capital Port-au-Prince, Byrs said, adding that the disaster was the “worst in terms of organisation and coordination of the emergency response.”


Besides local government infrastructure, buildings of international relief agencies have not been spared by the massive earthquake.

The headquarters building of the UN assistance mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) was flattened and many UN staff are still unaccounted for.

The national Haitian Red Cross offices were “near-destroyed in the earthquake,” said the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

As a result, relief agencies are having to set up temporary bases.

The international Red Cross said two base camps would also act as a temporary headquarters for the local Red Cross, while the World Food Programme said it was looking at bringing in a ship to be docked off the port to act as a logistical centre for the agency.

Meanwhile, some 27 international search and rescue teams comprising 1,500 workers and 115 dogs were active in the disaster area and had already pulled out a total of 58 survivors from the debris, said Byrs.

They included 34 who were rescued on Friday, three days after the earthquake struck, she added.
“The favourable climate and building structures have enhanced survivor chances,” she noted.

“So search and rescue is still the priority. The rescue phase will go on longer.”Rescue efforts are however being hindered by three major constraints -- transport, communications and fuel.

“Transport resources are very limited and hampered by the fact that the fuel stocks are running low,” said Byrs. “Another constraint is the lack of ambulances.” -AFP