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Haiti declares search-and-rescue phase over

January 23, 2010 |  9:01 am

Aa Haiti's government has declared the search-and-rescue phase of the post-earthquake recovery over, the United Nations announced today, saying there is little hope of finding more people alive 11 days after much of the capital was reduced to rubble.

The statement from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs came a day after an Israeli team reported pulling a man out of the debris of a two-story home and relatives said an elderly woman had been rescued.

Spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said the Friday afternoon decision does not mean rescue teams still searching for survivors would be stopped from carrying out whatever work they felt necessary.

"It doesn't mean the government will order them to stop. In case there is the slightest sign of life, they will act," Byrs said. She added, however, that "except for miracles, hope is unfortunately fading."

Starting now, the focus will be squarely on providing shelter and medical treatment, Byrs said. About 132 people were pulled alive from beneath collapsed buildings by international search-and-rescue teams since the Jan. 12 disaster, she said.

With the local government essentially incapacitated, the U.N. has coordinated rescue efforts alongside the U.S. The global body is concerned that many Haitians are still homeless as the rainy season and the hurricane season are about to begin.

The magnitude 7.0 quake killed an estimated 200,000 people, according to Haitian government figures cited by the European Commission. Countless dead remain buried in thousands of collapsed and toppled buildings in Port-au-Prince, and as many as 200,000 have fled the city of 2 million, the U.S. Agency for International Development reported.

About 609,000 people are homeless in the capital's metropolitan area, and the United Nations estimates that as many as 1 million could leave Haiti's destroyed cities for rural areas already struggling with extreme poverty.

Today, mourners gathered near the ruins of Port-au-Prince's shattered cathedral to pay final respects to the capital's archbishop and a vicar in a somber ceremony that doubled as a symbolic funeral for all the dead.

More than 1,000 people, many weeping and clutching handkerchiefs, joined dignitaries including President Rene Preval, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and the Vatican's ambassador to Haiti, Archbishop Bernadito Cleopas Auza, as classical music wafted over a small park.

"This is for everyone," Cleopas Auza said of the ceremony before it began.

Two closed white caskets covered with flowers sat side by side in the park, one holding the body of Msgr. Joseph Serge Miot, the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, and the other the remains of vicar Charles Benoit.

"I came here to pay my respects to all the dead from the earthquake, and to see them have a funeral," said Esther Belizaire, 51, whose cousin is among the dead.

Nepthalie Mior, a niece of the archbishop, choked back tears as she described the man who would have worked to comfort the nation after the disaster had he not been killed himself.

"He was a very compassionate person. He tried to help the poor," she said.

Only a small number of funerals have been held since the quake, with most people buried anonymously and without ceremony in mass graves on the outskirts of the city, or burned in the streets.

"The hardest thing for us is the smell of all the dead bodies," said Josette Elisias, 45, wearing a red handkerchief to cover her nose and mouth today as workers cleared rubble and debris from streets with brooms, rakes and wheelbarrows.

Scores of aid organizations, big and small, have stepped up deliveries of food, water, medical supplies and other aid to the homeless and other needy in seaside city.

In the U.S., celebrities and artists made impassioned pleas for charitable donations during an internationally broadcast telethon Friday night, Hope for Haiti Now.

"The Haitian people need our help," said actor George Clooney, who helped organize the two-hour telecast. "They need to know that they are not alone. They need to know that we still care."

More than a dozen Latin pop stars including Shakira, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Paulina Rubio, Daddy Yankee and Juanes were to appear today on a special live edition of a popular Univision variety show to raise money for the American Red Cross to help aid earthquake victims.

But in Haiti, obstacles remain at every turn to getting help into people's hands.

Byrs, the U.N. spokeswoman, said "hope is vanishing" that more people will be found alive despite two apparently miraculous rescues Friday.

The Israeli team that rescued 21-year-old Emmannuel Buso said that after relatives approached asking for help, they pulled away the debris of a two-story home and called out. To everyone's surprise, Buso responded.

The slender student and tailor with deep-set eyes emerged so ghostly white that his mother told rescuers she thought he was a corpse. In an interview, he described coming out of the shower when the quake hit.

"I felt the house dancing around me," Buso said from a bed in an Israeli field hospital. "I didn't know if I was up or down."

He told of passing out in the rubble, dreaming at times that he could hear his mother crying. The furniture in his room had collapsed around him in such a way that it created a small space for him amid the ruins of the house. He had no food. When he got desperately thirsty, he drank his urine.

Also Friday, an 84-year-old woman was said by relatives to have been pulled from the wreckage of her home, though doctors said her condition was critical.

Rescuers said they were encouraged but all too aware that few trapped people can survive for that long.

"Statistically you can say that the chances of survival is very low," said Fernando Alvarez Bravo, a representative in Mexico for rescue crews founded during the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, and still at work in Haiti on Friday. "But the hope it gives the population to recover and find their loved ones helps them to recover quickly. They don't feel abandoned."

-- Associated Press

Photo: Downtown Port-au-Prince. Heavy equipment is being moved into the area as cleanup begins sporadically in the quake-ravaged city. Credit: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times


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