Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti: “We haven't given up hope of finding more survivors today”

UN - Search-and-rescue teams from around the world continue to work around the clock to pull survivors out of the rubble in the wake of Tuesday's devastating earthquake in Haiti, the United Nations reported today, as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other top officials visited the Caribbean nation to show solidarity with the Haitian people.

More than 70 people pinned by debris have been found alive, a record number for urban search-and-rescue operations following an earthquake.

Over 40 teams – comprising nearly 1,800 rescue workers and more than 160 dogs – are working tirelessly under difficult circumstances after the 7.0 magnitude tremors, which the UN estimates has destroyed 10 per cent of the buildings in the hardest-hit city, the capital, Port-au-Prince, leaving 300,000 people homeless.

“We haven't given up hope of finding more survivors today,” six days after the tremors, said Jesper Lund, who is heading the global search-and-rescue operations under way in Haiti. “The teams won't stop searching as long as there is still hope of finding survivors alive.”

The teams are using heavy equipment to penetrate through thick concrete and acoustic, seismic and optical fiberscope equipment to locate trapped survivors. So far, nearly two thirds of the worst-affected areas of the capital, Port-au-Prince, the city hardest-hit by the earthquake, have been searched.

“Every second counts,” Mr. Lund stressed.

Unlike last September's earthquake in Indonesia in which search-and-rescue teams were unable to locate any survivors, in Tuesday's Haiti tremors, in many cases sufficient spaces to allow those who were trapped to survive were left when buildings collapsed.

“Also, the high degree of cooperation between the teams, the local authorities and the community, and their willingness to support each other, ensured greater synergy and response,” the search-and-rescue operation's leader noted. “That made the difference.”

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has underscored the difficulties of working in an environment in which roads are clogged with debris, communications are difficult and transportation is not readily available. Even if survivors are rescued, there are no ambulances to take them to hospitals.

While those in need of help are calm and rational, “they are desperate for help,” said John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, who traveled to Haiti today with the Secretary-General.

“They're desperate for water and food and I've been trying to assure them that it's coming, it's coming,” he added. “We know that it's slow but we'll there in the end and they're very understanding and accepting of that but they want to see the results soon and we understand that.”

On Friday, the UN and its partners launched an appeal on Friday for nearly $600 million to help the victims of the earthquake, which has left basic services on the brink of collapse in Port-au-Prince.

The funds are intended to assist an estimated 3 million affected people over a period of six months, with half of the funds being earmarked for emergency food aid, with the rest targeted at health, water, sanitation, nutrition, early recovery, emergency education and other key needs.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP), which started distributing food within 24 hours of the earthquake, announced today that it has so far reached 60,000 people with urgently-needed food. The agency ultimately aims to reach 2 million people as part of its emergency programme.

Given the security and logistical issues in transporting and delivering food in the capital, which was hit hardest by the tremors, WPF flew over Port-au-Prince yesterday and Friday, as well as conducting on-the-ground inspections, to determine possible locations for food distributions, which require military escorts from the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

“We are mobilizing all available resources to provide urgently needed food assistance as part of a swift and coordinated recovery effort,” said WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran.

Last night, the Secretary-General announced with deep sadness tonight that the top UN officials in Haiti perished in Tuesday's tremors.

In a statement issued by his spokesperson, Mr. Ban paid tribute to his Special Representative to Haiti, Hédi Annabi, as well as his Deputy Luiz Carlos da Costa and Acting Police Commissioner Doug Coates of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

“In every sense of the word, they gave their lives for peace,” he said. [Watch video]

“Our hearts are with them, the families and friends of Hédi, Luiz, Doug and the many other UN heroes who gave their lives for Haiti and for the highest ideals of the United Nations,” Mr. Ban said.

But “even weakened, MINUSTAH is operational,” Edmond Mulet, former Special Representative to Haiti and current Assistant-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, who was dispatched to the country to assume full command of the mission immediately after the quake struck, Facebook and Twitter, with nearly 5,000 fans and almost 400 followers having been amassed so far, respectively.

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