Aid groups are struggling to reach desperate Haitians as time is running out to reach survivors trapped beneath the rubble of devastated Port-au-Prince. On Thursday, Haitian President René Préval said some 7,000 people have already been buried in a mass grave. Corpses are piled up on the streets, with hundreds of bodies just outside the city’s morgue. The Red Cross says preliminary figures indicate a death toll of between 45,000 to 50,000. This is Haitian Emergency Services Coordinator Evans Lescouflair.
Evans Lescouflair: "Yesterday evening we recovered between 3,000 and 5,000 bodies, but because of what happened, there are more bodies to be found in the rubble. There are some who are seriously injured who are also dying. And tomorrow we are going to conduct an effective evaluation — names of the dead, numbers of disappeared. It is very difficult. Many buildings have fallen — the National Palace, ministries, colleges, universities and hotels."
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said the toll could remain unknown for a long while.
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes: "It will be some time, days, maybe even weeks, before we have really reliable figures on the number of dead and injured. I know that’s very frustrating for you. It’s not easy for us. The important point for us is that there are very large numbers of casualties of both dead and injured, more than we can easily deal with at the moment. So the exact number doesn’t make any difference to our response, frankly."
Aid is slowly beginning to trickle in more than forty-eight hours after the earthquake struck. Aid flights were diverted for over five hours Thursday because of a lack of space and fuel at the Port-au-Prince airport. Earlier today, the World Food Programme said its Port-au-Prince warehouses had been looted. The United Nations is planning to make an appeal today for $550 million in emergency aid. The first US troops have begun to arrive in Haiti, the first wave of an expected deployment of over 5,500 US forces. On Thursday, President Obama said the US would contribute a first installment of $100 million in aid to Haiti.
President Obama: "The first wave of our rescue and relief workers arrived on the ground yesterday. Search and rescue teams are now working around the clock to save lives. More waves of major assets are going to be arriving. This morning, I announced an immediate investment of $100 million to support our relief efforts in the early days of this crisis. Most of this is for the basics — life saving equipment, food, water, medicine. This investment will grow over the year as we help our neighbors embark on what is going to be a long-term recovery."
Obama meanwhile also announced he has asked former President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton to co-chair the US relief effort in Haiti. During his first term, Bush cut off desperately needed aid to Haiti and supported the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, supported the first coup against Aristide in 1991. Clinton, meanwhile, helped restore Aristide, but only on condition that he accept harsh neoliberal conditions. Aristide, meanwhile, spoke out yesterday from exile in South Africa.
Standing with his wife Mildred Aristide, the former Haitian president said he wants to return to his country.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide: "As we all know, many people remain buried under tons of rubble and debris, waiting to be rescued. When we think of their suffering, we feel deeply and profoundly that we should be there, in Haiti, with them, trying our best to prevent death."
In Pakistan, at least sixteen people have been killed in a US drone attack in the South Waziristan tribal region. Pakistani officials say the strike could have killed the top Taliban leader in Pakistan, Hakimullah Mehsud. The Taliban says Mehsud left before the attack and escaped harm. The attack came amidst a visit to Pakistan by US special envoy Richard Holbrooke. On Thursday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani criticized the drone strikes, saying they undermine Pakistani sovereignty.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, at least sixteen people were killed Thursday in a suicide bombing in Uruzgan province. It was the deadliest militant attack on Afghan civilians since September.
President Obama has proposed a new tax to recoup the bailout money handed out to large financial firms during the financial crisis.
President Obama: "We want our money back, and we’re going to get it. And that’s why I am proposing a financial crisis responsibility fee to be imposed on major financial firms until the American people are fully compensated for the extraordinary assistance they provided to Wall Street. If these companies are in good enough shape to afford massive bonuses, they are surely in good enough shape to afford paying back every penny to taxpayers."
The "Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee" would collect an estimated $90 billion over the next ten years from fifty firms. The proposal will apply only to financial firms with over $50 billion in assets, exempting small or community banks.
Obama’s announcement came as the Wall Street Journal reported the nation’s thirty-eight largest financial firms will pay out a record $145.85 billion in compensation for 2009. The figure marks an 18 percent increase over 2008 and a six percent increase over 2007.
As Wall Street sees record payouts, new figures show foreclosure notices hit an all-time high last year. According to RealtyTrac, a record 2.8 million properties received foreclosure notices in 2009, a 120 percent increase from 2007.
The Obama administration and major labor unions have reached an agreement on taxing high-cost health insurance plans. The tax would help fund expanding health insurance under the healthcare reform measure. But it had come under opposition for targeting insurance plans that unions have won in exchange for lower wages and benefits. Under the deal, union members would be exempt from the tax until 2018, five years after the health bill would take effect.
A new study says African American unemployment is on pace to reach a twenty-five-year high. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the national African American unemployment rate will exceed 17 percent, and top 20 percent in at least five states. The poverty rate for African American children is predicted to reach as much as 50 percent, up from 34 percent in 2008.
And federal regulators have unveiled proposals to impose limits on speculation in oil and other energy commodities. On Thursday, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission called for limiting how financial speculators trade energy commodities to ensure they don’t help inflate prices. Under the Bush administration, the CFTC rejected speculation as a cause of rising oil prices and instead blamed supply and demand.