January 20, 2010 / 3:46 AM / 10 years ago

Aid slowest reaching rural Haitians at quake center

* Locals gaped as earth moved in front of them

* Wounded lie untreated for a week at quake epicenter

* U.S. army food drop catches dazed survivors by surprise

By Catherine Bremer

LEOGANE, Haiti, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Two hours drive west of Port-au-Prince, in the banana-growing hills where the epicenter of Haiti’s earthquake tore chunks out of hillsides, hurled boulders and cracked roads, survivors with festering wounds sleep by their wrecked homes, unseen by aid workers.

A week after the first rumbles of the quake set pigs screaming at this cluster of rural homes, an old man lies immobile on a mattress, a bloody bandage on his head.

A girl is paralyzed with a spinal injury and her sister has infected pus oozing from a crudely stitched gash from her forehead to the nape of her neck and another above her eye.

"Before they stitched it I could see her skull," shudders her aunt, Cyndie Thelus, 26.

She took the girls to the nearest hospital, a day clinic, but it was so under-equipped it could not tend to the first girl and gave only rudimentary treatment to the second.

By Tuesday, foreign medics were finally at work at a field hospital at the dirt-poor farming town of Leogane, by the quake epicenter. But nobody in the rockfall-plagued hilltop hamlets seems to know they are there, and the medics do not have the personnel to send teams out to look for patients.

Here at the core of the violent 7.0 magnitude quake, lush green hills have been ruptured and split. Locals have sawn through trees sticking out of fallen earth on the roads and they point to where truck drivers at a sand quarry were crushed when a giant chunk of it collapsed, redrawing the landscape.

"I was inside bathing when it started shaking. I ran out and I saw that where there had been a hill there was empty space," said Seraphin Sonel, 14, who lives by the destroyed quarry.

At a field on the edge of Leogane, earthquake survivors flocked on Tuesday around U.S. Marines guarding the first helicopter drops of water and food supplies, but said they also urgently needed tents to sleep in and medical attention.

"We have nothing. The food we had at home is under the rubble. We have no money. We don’t even have water," said Rebecca Mirlind, 25, watching a helicopter land with her boyfriend. "This will really help."

But she said the biggest need was to treat people before infected wounds become fatal. "There are lots of people injured, lots are suffering from broken limbs."


International aid workers and supplies have poured into Haiti in the last few days, but the country’s ruptured communications, poor roads, and chaos in the rubble-strewn capital have made it difficult to get help and information to the people, especially out in rural areas.

Some bystanders watching Tuesday’s food drop initially thought they were seeing some kind of U.S. invasion and that the food was just for the troops.

"Right now, the plan is to get some supplies in as fast as we can," said Captain Clark Carpenter, public affairs officer for several dozen Marines setting up a secure drop zone from which United Nations trucks will start distributing the food aid. He could not say whether medical help would be provided.

Doctors Without Borders have treated 200 patients at a field hospital on the edge of Leogane, and a Japanese team of medics have treated three dozen more. Other foreign teams are due to arrive in the days ahead at Leogane’s poorly equipped Sainte Croix day clinic.

"What is needed now is surgical facilities," said American Suzi Parker, 66, who narrowly escaped being crushed in the guest house she ran next to the clinic and is now dressed in hospital scrubs as she lost all her possessions except her watch and glasses.

In the red earth hills, where peasants live on sugar cane, fried plantain, cassava bread and rice, wood or corrugated iron huts held up better to the quake than multistory concrete buildings in the capital, where up to 200,000 died.

But many people in poorly built breeze-block homes were killed or hurt. Now everyone in Leogane sleeps under the stars, or in sturdy triangular shelters they have built from corrugated iron sheets nailed to wooden frames.

At one point along the potholed road leading to Leogane from the capital, a dozen bloated bodies, including a small baby, lie ignored and rotting in the baking sun.

More people with gangrenous wounds risk dying if they are not treated soon.

"Even before all this drama the hospitals here barely functioned," said Joel Beaubrun, 34, surveying the U.S. army aid drop. "You can imagine what it’s like now." (Editing by Pascal Fletcher)

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