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Patience Runs Thin in Haiti Quake Zone as Fights Erupt for Food


LES CAYES, Haiti — Desperate residents who lost their homes and livelihoods nearly a week ago in Haiti’s earthquake are fighting over what little aid has been delivered, angered by the slow trickle of relief and the lack of government help.

By Friday, aid was flowing bit by bit to Les Cayes, one of the cities on Haiti’s southern peninsula worst hit by the quake, but the limited supplies only raised tensions among increasingly desperate residents.

Gunshots rang out when an angry crowd surrounded a broken-down truck outside of Les Cayes on Thursday, thinking it carried aid.

Earlier in the week, two surgeons were kidnapped in Port-au-Prince, the capital 80 miles to the west, where they were providing much-needed medical relief to quake victims airlifted there.

The abductions effectively shattered a shaky truce that Haiti’s organized gangs had announced shortly after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck on Saturday. The kidnappings of the doctors, including one of Haiti’s few orthopedic surgeons, prompted one hospital to close down on Thursday for two days in protest, according to The Associated Press.

In the absence of support from the central government in Port-au-Prince, which has been in a state of partial paralysis since the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, some prominent Haitian politicians have been visiting the affected area ahead of expected presidential elections later this year.

Former President Michel Martelly was the latest, arriving Friday from abroad in a plane stocked with aid supplies, promising to help the victims as best he could. “We are here to bring support, to bring hope,” he told reporters on arrival.

On Thursday at the police headquarters of Les Cayes, the local authorities were distributing donations from half a dozen countries, a panoply of emergency supplies ranging from Tibetan glacial water received from China to Japanese inflatable mattresses.

Despite the slow pace of international donations, much of the aid effort seen in central Les Cayes remained a private initiative. The city’s better-off residents and Haitian diaspora groups set up soup kitchens and brought drinking water for the displaced. But when the food arrived at the camps, it sometimes set off frantic scuffles among the hungry recipients.

“When you have 75 meals for hundreds of people, it creates a sensitive situation,” said the Rev. Roosvelt Milfort, an evangelical pastor who has helped organize a camp for displaced people at the soccer field in Les Cayes. “People get angry.”

A man with a megaphone urged the camp’s residents on Thursday to have forbearance and allow community leaders to organize donations to ensure equal distribution. “If we didn’t die from the earthquake, we won’t die of hunger,” the voice on the megaphone intoned.

Haiti’s civil protection officials have said that at least 2,189 people were killed in the quake, with hundreds still missing, and that more than 12,000 suffered injuries. But there is concern the ultimate death toll could be far higher.

Despite the relatively short distance from the capital — a four-hour drive in normal times — aid deliveries to the affected areas continued to be severely constrained by logistics.

Gang violence has plagued the crucial artery from the capital to the south, derailing some supplies. Angry residents along the way have stopped and commandeered some aid trucks on the way to the affected zone, demanding some supplies for themselves. And some sections of the road have been damaged by landslides caused by the earthquake.

Emilliene Brice, 61, sheltered under a makeshift tent made of tarpaulin and sticks in the Les Cayes soccer field on Thursday with 13 children, grandchildren and other relatives. Her house had collapsed and they had to flee.

“I don’t know what to do, I rely on other people,” said Ms. Brice, who is blind. “I don’t know what to expect. I can’t do anything. I only have my kids and God.”

Some American officials have suggested a sharply increased death toll could yet emerge from the quake in coming days and weeks. They pointed to a scientific modeling tool from the U.S. Geological Survey, known as the Prompt Assessment of Global Earthquakes for Response, or PAGER, that combines data about an earthquake with demographic and other information from a stricken region to assess the scale of the disaster, including estimated deaths.

Based on the PAGER modeling, deaths could be at least 10 times as high as the number known so far, according to an article about the tool published Thursday in Scientific American.

Anatoly Kurmanaev reported from Les Cayes, and Maria Abi-Habib from Port-au-Prince.


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