Flights suspended as airport unable to cope
Published 15/01/2010 | 05:00
HAITI'S tiny airport buckled under the burden of global sympathy last night as controllers called a halt to incoming relief flights, unable to cope with the volume of traffic heading to the earthquake zone.
With roads cracked and blocked with rubble, a ruined port and no heavy-lifting equipment to be found across the capital, aid workers warned that thousands may die for the want of emergency supplies sitting hundreds of miles away on an airstrip on the Dominican side of the island.
All flights were suspended after air traffic controllers declared that Haitian airspace was saturated by the rush of aircraft trying to deliver supplies.
Among 11 aircraft that were turned back was one containing a team of British firefighters and rescue dogs sent to search for survivors.
"It's chaos," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which oversees the international response to major disasters. "It's a logistical nightmare."
Earlier in the day Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister and a veteran aid worker, warned that such a bottleneck could occur if agencies did not try to work together.
"The competition between aid organisations can become an obstacle," he said. "There is a risk of the airport getting crowded with all this aid flying in. Co-ordination is going to be extremely hard."
John Holmes, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, said in New York that US troops had joined the efforts to fix the problems at Port-au-Prince airport.
"The blockage is not so much in the distribution. The blockage is in the arrival. There are a lot of planes coming in," he said. "People are working very hard to fix that."
With parking spaces running out, little fuel to supply departing aircraft and the roads into Port-au-Prince blocked, the hopes of reaching survivors within a critical time window were dwindling fast. Most of those who die of traumatic earthquake injuries do so in the first three days.
Without heavy-lifting equipment to move the rubble, the number of those who were still trapped remained unclear.
Christian Aid warned yesterday that clean drinking water in Port-au-Prince would run out within three days after underground pipes and wells were shattered.
A main pipeline running from a mountain reservoir to the city broke when the hillface collapsed, leaving thousands searching for water in 30C heat.
In the short term, wounded and shocked survivors may die of thirst. Within a week the danger of diseases such as cholera or dengue fever becomes greater. The earthquake not only knocked out much of Haiti's already creaking infrastructure but also its human assets.
Aid organisations and UN agencies saw their offices flattened and their staff were killed, missing or busy searching for lost family members.
The UN established a "humanitarian forum" in Geneva to co-ordinate action by different agencies -- the World Food Programme managing logistics; the World Health Organisation in charge of health; and UNICEF, the UN children's fund, overseeing water and sanitation.
With most outside help still to reach Haiti, the immediate gap is set to be filled by American soldiers who began arriving by air yesterday. (© The Times, London)