Haiti: 'Money is worth nothing right now … water is the only currency'

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DESPERATE Haitians clawed at chunks of concrete with their bare hands and battered at slabs of debris with sledgehammers yesterday, trying to free people buried alive in Tuesday's devastating earthquake.

• A UN employee walks free after 40 hours in the rubble, while rescue efforts continue. Picture: Getty

Bodies were visible all around the capital, Port-au-Prince – under rubble, lying beside roads and being loaded into lorries.

Sobs and wails echoed around the city as relatives and friends mourned the dead and searched desperately for survivors.

Traumatised men, women and children were sleeping in parks and streets, fearing aftershocks to the catastrophic earthquake that flattened countless homes. Water supplies were cut, and the threat of disease was growing. "Money is worth nothing right now – water is the currency," one foreign aid-worker said.

Looting was rife as lawlessness threatened to break out, adding to the problems facing the stricken Caribbean country.

Joseph Jonids Villarson, the Haiti head of Catholic aid coalition Caritas, said from the scene: "This is the worst disaster Haiti has experienced."

With bodies littering the streets and people still trapped under the debris, he feared disease and violence would break out.

He said: "The hospitals are overwhelmed with the dead and injured. The risk of disease is great. The streets and public places are filled with people who do not know where to go. We fear violence if the situation continues. Looting has already broken out. There is very little visible presence of the police."

Scattered bodies were laid out on pavements, wrapped in sheets and blankets, and voices cried out from the rubble.

As Haitians wandered the chaotic, broken streets, hoping desperately for assistance, the first international aid began to trickle in. Flights with supplies from overseas began to touch down at Port-au-Prince airport, although rescue efforts were hampered by the logistical nightmare of operating in a country where the infrastructure had been decimated.

There were few signs of organised operations to rescue those trapped in debris or remove bodies and doctors in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, were ill-equipped to treat the injured.

A woman in her twenties, Jeudy Francia, shrieked outside the St-Esprit Hospital in the city: "Please save my baby." Her child, a girl about four years old, writhed in pain in the hospital's chaotic courtyard, near where corpses lay under white blankets.

"There is no-one, nothing, no medicines, no explanations for why my daughter is going to die," she said.

Women sang traditional religious songs in the dark and prayed for the dead. Hotel worker Dermene Duma, who lost four relatives, said: "They sing because they want God to do something. We all do."

One young man yelled at reporters in English: "Too many people are dying. We need international help … no food, no phone, no water, no nothing." Normal communications were cut off, roads were blocked by rubble and trees, electricity supplies were interrupted, and water was in short supply.

"It's the worst I've ever seen," said the Salvation Army's director of disaster services in Haiti, Bob Poff. "It's so much devastation in a concentrated area. It's going to take days, or weeks, to dig out."

Severe damage to at least eight Port-au-Prince hospitals made it nearly impossible to treat the thousands of injured or prevent outbreaks of disease. Doctors struggled to treat crushed limbs, head wounds and broken bones at makeshift facilities where medical supplies were scarce.

"This is much worse than a hurricane," said Jimitre Coquillon, a doctor's assistant working at a triage centre set up in a hotel car park. "There's no water. There's nothing. Thirsty people are going to die."

Some people dragged the dust-covered dead along the roads, trying to reach a hospital.

Other survivors carried injured to hospitals in wheelbarrows and on stretchers fashioned from doors. Pickup trucks were turned into ambulances.

Among the reported looting, people were seen carrying food from collapsed buildings.

Inmates were reported to have escaped from the damaged main prison in Port-au-Prince, said Elisabeth Byrs, a UN humanitarian spokeswoman in Geneva.

She said: "It's chaos. It's a logistical nightmare."