Presidential unity behind relief effort

Bill Clinton and George W Bush joined President Barack Obama to launch of a new fund-raising drive and commitment to rebuild Haiti.

US President Barack Obama (C) speaks alongside former US Presidents Bill Clinton (L) and George W. Bush (R) about relief efforts following the earthquake in Haiti, during a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 16, 2010. Obama said the former presidents would lead a fundraising effort for Haiti to aid the Caribbean nation after the devastating January 12 earthquake.      AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB *** Local Caption ***  637703-01-08.jpg *** Local Caption ***  637703-01-08.jpg

WASHINGTON // Flanked by two of his immediate predecessors - George W Bush and Bill Clinton - President Barack Obama announced yesterday the launch of a new fund-raising effort for Haiti and vowed a sustained US commitment to rebuilding the island nation in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. "By coming together in this way, these two leaders send an unmistakable message to the people of Haiti and to the people of the world," Mr Obama said, speaking in the White House Rose Garden. "In these difficult hours, America stands united. We stand united with the people of Haiti, who have shown such incredible resilience, and we will help them to recover and to rebuild."

The two former presidents have set up the Clinton Haiti Fund to raise money and the profile of the recovery effort, which Mr Obama described as "one of the largest relief efforts in our history." "These gentlemen are going to do an extraordinary job. But really what they are going to be doing is just tapping into the incredible generosity, the ingenuity, the can-do spirit of the American people in helping our neighbours in need," he said.

For Mr Bush, the relief work marks a return to the public spotlight. "That earthquake destroyed a lot, it didn't destroy their spirit," said Mr Bush, who was making his first return to the White House. "The people of Haiti will recover and rebuild and, as they do, they know they'll have a friend in the United States of America." "We want to stay with this over the long run," added an emotionally charged Mr Clinton, who has served as the UN special envoy to Haiti since May. "I have no words to say what I feel. I was in those hotels that collapsed. I had meals with people who are dead."

The strong show of support comes nearly four days after the powerful earthquake flattened buildings in the country and as hope of finding more survivors is growing dim. Still, US officials said rescue efforts would continue. "There is still a window," Tim Callaghan, senior regional adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean at the office of foreign disaster assistance, said from Haiti in a conference call with reporters. "We will work non-stop".

The 36 US search and rescue teams currently on the ground in Haiti have rescued 15 people so far, about half of whom are US citizens, Mr Callaghan said, noting that it can take more than 12 hours to dig out a survivor once he or she is located. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, was scheduled to arrive in Haiti on Saturday. She will be the highest ranking US official to witness the devastation firsthand.

"I think her presence there will help smooth operations between the Haitian officials - some who are reticent in relinquishing some power - and US officials," Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador in Washington, told CNN. Mrs Clinton was to arrive on a flight that had already been scheduled to deliver aid, Denis McDonough, the National Security Council chief of staff, said, responding to concerns that Mrs Clinton's arrival would disrupt the relief efforts.

Mrs Clinton will leave Haiti on an aeroplane transporting rescued US citizens, Mr McDonough said. Damage to the airport and seaport in Port-au-Prince have hampered the flow of aid and medical personnel into the country. Still, Mr McDonough said some 180 tonnes of relief supplies have landed in Haiti so far and that a water purification systems would soon be up and running. The US secretary of defence, Robert Gates, signed a Haiti disaster relief execution order that will authorise US$20 million in immediate relief funds.

Five emergency health centres have now been established in the country and a US hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, which has 1,000 patient beds and multiple operating and recovery rooms, was en route. Mr Obama has pledged $100 million in assistance and dispatched 10,000 troops, who were expected to arrive in Haiti on Monday.