PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - First lady Michelle Obama made a surprise visit yesterday to the ruins of the Haitian capital, a high-profile reminder that hundreds of thousands remain in desperate straits three months after the earthquake.
The first lady and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, took a helicopter tour of Port-au-Prince, where many people are still homeless, before landing at the destroyed national palace to meet President René Préval. They later talked with students whose lives have been upended by the disaster and walked along a vast, squalid encampment of families living under bed sheets and tents.
"It's powerful," Obama told reporters. "The devastation is definitely powerful."
A number of past and present world leaders have visited since the earthquake, including former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But few have the star power here of the American first lady.
"It was important for Jill and I to come now because we're at the point where the relief efforts are under way, but the attention of the world starts to wane a bit," she said. "As we enter the rainy season and the hurricane season . . . the issues are just going to become more compounded."
The U.S. government has had a troubled relationship with Haiti, occupying the country for nearly two decades early in the 20th century and later backing brutal dictators, but many Haitians are grateful for the aid and security that the U.S. has provided since the earthquake.
The U.S. has provided nearly $1 billion in humanitarian aid and pledged more than $1 billion in additional aid.
Obama and Biden's visit is intended to underscore U.S. commitment to the Haitian reconstruction effort and to thank U.S. officials who have worked in the country for the past three months, the administration said in a statement. It is Obama's first solo trip as first lady, and she will visit Mexico next. Haiti was included when the trip was planned a month ago but not announced for security reasons.
The first lady praised UN peacekeepers and the Haitian people for their strength and resiliency. Building part of her speech around a Haitian proverb, "little by little the bird makes its nest," she assured the audience that the U.S. will stand with them during reconstruction.
"Little by little Haiti will move forward," she said to UN peacekeepers and humanitarian workers. "Little by little we're going to keep making tomorrow better than today."
Frenel Pierre, who was living in a tent on the grounds of a collapsed school with her husband and six children, said they needed more food and water. "I hope this visit will bring us help, because they've brought us practically nothing," she said.