WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama sent his chief diplomat to Haiti for a firsthand look Saturday at the earthquake’s devastation and invited two former presidents to the White House to discuss their roles in leading fundraising relief for the Caribbean nation.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton planned to confer with officials about how to speed humanitarian aid and shape the recovery effort. She will be the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Haiti since Tuesday’s earthquake, which the Red Cross estimates killed 45,000 to 50,000 people. The White House said Obama had no immediate plans to go there.
Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have set up a Web site — http://www.clintonbushhaitifund.org — to begin collecting donations.
“Both of us have personally witnessed the tremendous generosity and good will of the American people and of our friends around the world to help in times of great need,” they said on the site. “There is no greater rallying cry for our common humanity than to witness our neighbors in distress — and come to their aid.”
Vice President Joe Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano met with Haitian-American leaders in Miami on Saturday and planned to stop at an air base where relief supplies are being flown out to the country. South Florida is the home to the largest Haitian-American population in the U.S.
Obama spoke with Haitian President Rene Preval on Friday and pledged the U.S. would stand with it for the immediate search-and-rescue effort and for the eventual rebuilding. Two previous attempts to contact Preval, who was to meet with Clinton, had failed because of communications problems.
The Obama administration also acknowledged the limits of its initial relief efforts and promised a to speed delivery of water and other supplies.
The State Department raised the confirmed U.S. death toll to six, and said 15 other Americans are presumed to have died.
Dr. Rajiv Shah, the White House’s designated coordinator of the U.S. relief effort who was accompanying Clinton, has said the main focus of U.S. efforts was on recovering trapped survivors.
Shah indicated that relief supplies will begin flowing more freely in the next few days. He said he had pulled together $48 million worth of food aid, enough to feed the affected 2 million Haitians for several months. He also said 100,000 10-liter containers of water would be there soon.
But he and others also stressed the physical and logistical limits on the U.S. ability to deliver the aid.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the major obstacle was the inability to use the main port in Port-au-Prince, the capital, because of extensive damage. There also is only one airport.
About 4,200 U.S. military personnel were operating within Haiti or from Navy and Coast Guard vessels offshore, the U.S. Southern Command said. An additional 6,300 personnel are scheduled to arrive by Monday to help distribute aid and prevent potential rioting among desperate survivors.
Bush’s visit to the White House on Saturday was to be his first since he left office in January 2009. Bill Clinton, already the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, visited Obama at the White House when he was in Washington last week.
After the Asian tsunami in 2004, Bush asked his father, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, to lead the effort to raise private donations. The elder Bush and Clinton also raised private money after Hurricane Katrina.