Quake destruction "like in a war": Haiti president

PORT-AU-PRINCE Fri Jan 15, 2010 6:39pm EST

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti's shell-shocked president, Rene Preval, thanked the world on Friday for its rush to aid his poor Caribbean nation after the catastrophic earthquake that he compared to a wartime bombardment.

"The damage I have seen here can be compared to the damage you would see if the country was bombed for 15 days. It is like in a war," the 66-year-old leader told Reuters in an interview outside the police station that has become his home and office in the wrecked capital Port-au-Prince.

The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that devastated much of the hilly coastal city on Tuesday also collapsed the elegant presidential palace and his own home.

Authorities in Haiti, already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, are saying they believe the death toll will be between 100,000 and 200,000 and that three-quarters of the city will need to be rebuilt.

Preval, a balding, graying figure who like many of his countrymen appeared stunned by the enormity of the catastrophe, said he hadn't slept for two days after the quake hit.

"I do not have a home, I do not have a telephone, this is my palace now," he said, smiling wryly and pointing to the headquarters of the judicial police where he is staying.

Several times he took a Blackberry out of his pocket to show there was no signal to illustrate the huge communications and infrastructure problems that his country is facing as a big international relief effort gains momentum.

Speaking calmly, but visibly shaken, Preval said he had spoken Friday morning to U.S. President Barack Obama and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the massive relief initiative they were spearheading for Haiti.

"They offered sympathy and said they will do all that they can to help ... I thank them for the attention that they are giving to the situation in Haiti," said Preval, who wore a loose, short-sleeved shirt.

"WE HAVE TO RECONSTRUCT EVERYTHING"

The soft-spoken Haitian president, who at one point checked on earthquake victims arriving in an ambulance, waved aside questions on casualty figures.

"I'm not going to hazard a guess," Preval said, although various national and international authorities have said the toll will run into many tens of thousands.

"We have to reconstruct everything. The palace fell down, the parliament has crumbled, the justice palace has fallen down," he said.

Asked about the cost of reconstruction, Preval said: "The U.N. is in a better place to assess this than we are. The UNDP (United Nations Development Program) said they estimate more than 500 million dollars are needed".

The lack of functioning communications was a major problem. "There are virtually no (working) telephones ... It is even hard to call or meet the prime minister," Preval said.

There were also concerns about the availability of fuel.

"We have to make sure there is gas available for the cell phone companies and for the trucks for collecting the bodies. The hospitals are full, they are overwhelmed," the president said.

Trucks piled with corpses have been carrying bodies to hurriedly excavated mass graves in at least one area outside the city, but thousands of bodies are still believed buried under rubble.

Authorities have reported some looting and growing anger and frustration among earthquake survivors as international aid takes time to reach people on the street because of huge logistical challenges and bottlenecks.

Asked which out of food, water, communications, or police on the street were Haiti's top priorities in this time of emergency, he replied "All, my friend, all".

(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara)

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