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Obama welcomes Haitian president to White House; pledges aid

President Barack Obama welcomed Hatian President Rene Preval to the White House Wednesday, pledging that as it rebuilds, the earthquake-wracked country "will continue to have a steady and reliable partner in the United States of America.

"America's commitment to Haiti's recovery and reconstruction must endure and will endure,'' Obama said. "This pledge is one that I made at the beginning of this crisis and I intend for America to keep our pledge. America will be your partner in the recovery and reconstruction effort.''

Preval called the damage to his country from the Jan. 12 quake "unimaginable,'' but noted the response from the international community -- "from Asia to Africa, from the United States, from Canada, from all of Latin America, from the Caribbean, from Europe, all the way to the Middle East -- thanks to its swiftness, thanks to its size, was commensurate with the disaster.''

   The two presidents met privately in the Oval Office for what Obama said was a "very productive meeting'' before delivering remarks to a crowd in the Rose Garden that included aid workers, members of Congress and Haitian-Americans from across the country.

   Preval said he told Obama that the country has immediate needs: to shelter those who were left homeless and to prepare for the rainy season.

 But, he added, "And at the same time, we must deal with the need of rebuilding Haiti,'' he said. He said the country needs to adopt decentralization by offering health care, education and jobs across the country to avoid overcrowding in Port-au-Prince.

 Obama said Preval offered an update on the progress of recovery "and the daunting challenges ahead in a disaster that, even now, defies comprehension.'' The InterAmerican Development Bank has pegged the recovery cost at $14 billion.

Obama noted that on the scale of Haiti's loss, "it's as if the United States, in a terrible instant, lost nearly 8 million people'' or that 100 million Americans -- îîsuddenly had no home, no food, or water.

 "No nation could respond to such a catastrophe alone,'' Obama said. "It would require a global response. And that's exactly what we have seen these past two months.''

 The two were joined in the Rose Garden by officials with some of the U.S. agencies who responded to the quake, including representatives of the State Department, USAID, Homeland Security, FEMA, Health and Human Services, Transportation, and the Defense Department.

   Also in attendance, volunteer physicians, nurses and paramedics and members of the urban search and rescue teams who pulled survivors out of the wreckage -- including members of the Miami-Dade and the South Florida search and rescue teams.

 The visit comes as the administration is preparing to ask Congress for as much as $3 billion in emergency aid for Haiti. Obama said the situation in Haiti "remains dire, and people should be under no illusions that the crisis is over.

  "Many Haitians are still in need, desperate need in some cases, of shelter and food and medicine,'' he said. îîAnd with the spring rains approaching, those needs will only grow. The challenge now is to prevent a second disaster.''

Both presidents noted that international donors will convene at the United Nations March 31 to discuss Haiti reconstruction plans.

"Haiti can lead the way, and will lead the way, with a strong vision for its future,'' Obama said. "The international community can pledge the resources that will be necessary for a coordinated and sustained effort. And working together, we can ensure that assistance not simply delivers relief for the short term, but builds up Haiti's capacity to deliver basic services and provide for the Haitian people over the long
term.''

   Obama told Preval that the Haitian people had responded to the crisis with "with resolve and faith that inspired the world -- in song and in prayer, and in the determination to carry on.

"As you declared during last month's national day of mourning,'' Obama said. "It is time to wipe away the tears; it is time for Haiti to rebuild.''

   Preval, who met Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, thanked Americans for their generosity and expressed sympathy for the more than 100 Americans who died in the earthquake. He also singled out Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, "not only for the material aid, but also for the moral support, the psychological support, that helped us realize that we were not alone and that provide us great comfort in our distress.''

   He said the earthquake should serve as a lesson, noting it was followed by an earthquake in Chile, as well as other earthquakes.

  "We must draw the lessons from what occurred in Haiti -- the massive, spontaneous, generous help was a good response to the disaster,'' he said. "However, its effectiveness must be improved, because effectiveness depends on the quality of coordination.''

   He said he supports the creation of "red helmets'' within the United Nations -- "a warning system'' for natural disasters and a humanitarian force which would be the equivalent of the UN's blue helmeted peace keepers.

   He was to meet with Congressional leaders later Wednesday, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.     

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