The United Nations is mobilizing its resources in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti yesterday, sending its experts and supplies to the Caribbean nation, while stressing the urgent need for food, water, search-and-rescue teams and medical help.
The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) reported that the 7.0 magnitude earthquake has caused major damage in the capital, Port-au-Prince, with the National Palace, the Ministry of Justice and other Government offices having been destroyed.
“We are still struggling to learn the full extent of the devastation from yesterday’s earthquake,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told an emergency informal meeting of the General Assembly, accompanied by former United States president Bill Clinton, who serves as UN Special Envoy for Haiti.
“Casualties can not yet be estimated but they are certain to be heavy,” Mr. Ban noted, adding that initial reports suggest that roughly a third of Haiti’s nine million people may be affected.
Mr. Clinton stressed there is a great desire around the world to help the Haitian people and he encouraged people to donate money for the relief effort. “The most important thing individuals can do, who care, is to send cash – even if it’s a dollar, or two dollars.”
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes identified search-and-rescue efforts as an immediate priority in Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries. “Every hour counts in this kind of situation when people are trapped under rubble and desperately need to be rescued.”
A Chinese team has already touched down in Port-au-Prince, with two teams from the US expected later today with heavy equipment and dogs to aid their operation.
“The situation on the ground is very difficult,” said Under-Secretary-General for Field Support Susana Malcorra, with heavy equipment desperately needed to detect movement under the debris and to move large pieces of rubble.
MINUSTAH troops have been working since Tuesday night to reach those trapped under the rubble, including their fellow UN colleagues. Some 150 UN staff members – including the top UN envoy in Haiti, Hédi Annabi – remain unaccounted for following the collapse of the Christopher Hotel, which houses the UN’s headquarters, and other buildings used by the world body.
As of Wednesday evening, 16 UN peacekeepers have been confirmed dead – 1 Argentinean, 11 Brazilians, 1 Chadian and 3 Jordanians – but officials believe this number is likely to rise in the coming days.
Mr. Holmes also stressed the need for medical help, as hospitals are overwhelmed. “We expect those needs to increase and are making a major effort in the UN system” to swiftly provide as much help as possible, he emphasized.
A flash appeal will be launched in the next few days, with $10 million having been released from the UN Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF) to jump-start the operation in Haiti today, with the possibility of more funds being made available as the situation requires.
It was also announced today that the UN is pre-positioning an airplane, to be operational by Friday, to shuttle UN and humanitarian agency staff between Miami and Port-au-Prince.
Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of WFP, said that the agency is already deploying its resources in Haiti and is airlifting an additional 86 metric tons of food – enough for half a million emergency meals – from its emergency hub in El Salvador.
Additionally, WFP will provide ready-to-eat food and high-energy biscuits for those who cannot access cooking facilities following the tremors.
“We will work with the Haitian Government, with our humanitarian partners on the ground, and with governments across the world as part of a coordinated international rescue and recovery effort,” Ms. Sheeran said in a statement.
For its part, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) is spearheading the health response to the earthquake. Immediate health priorities include finding survivors pinned under rubble, treating people with major injuries and the provision of clean water and sanitation, the agency noted.
WHO is helping to collect data on the health impact of the earthquake and is also deploying a 12-member team comprising experts in mass casualty management, coordination of emergency health response and the management of dead bodies.
UNICEF, whose offices have been badly damaged, said it will help children continue their schooling and provide safe play areas while their caretakers rebuild their lives.
Haiti has the highest maternal mortality rates in the region, with 670 deaths per 100,000 live births, and this figure is set to skyrocket due to yesterday’s powerful tremors.
With buildings and infrastructure in Port-au-Prince having suffered extensive damage, “there is no doubt that we are facing a major humanitarian emergency and that a major relief effort will be required,” Mr. Ban told reporters this morning in New York.
Expressing gratitude to nations rushing aid to the earthquake’s victims, he called for the world to “come to Haiti’s aid in this hour of need.”