PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — An aftershock Wednesday forced more earthquake survivors onto the capital's streets to live and sent others fleeing to the countryside, where aid was only beginning to reach wrecked towns.
A flotilla of rescue vessels, meanwhile, led by the U.S. hospital ship Comfort, converged on Port-au-Prince harbor to help fill gaps in still-lagging global efforts to deliver water, food and medical help. Hundreds of thousands of survivors of Haiti's cataclysmic earthquake were living in makeshift tents or on blankets and plastic sheets.
The strongest tremor since the Jan. 12 quake struck at 6:03 a.m., just before sunrise. From the teeming plaza near the collapsed presidential palace to a hillside tent city, the 5.9-magnitude aftershock lasted only seconds but panicked thousands of people.
Parents gathered up children and ran.
In the hills, where U.S. troops were helping thousands of homeless, people bolted screaming from their tents. Jajoute Ricardo, 24, came running from his house, fearing its collapse.
"Nobody will go to their house now," he said, as he sought a tent of his own. "It is chaos, for real."
Throngs again sought out small, ramshackle "tap-tap" buses to take them away from the city. On Port-au-Prince's beaches, more than 20,000 people looked for boats to carry them down the coast, the local Signal FM radio reported.
But the desperation may be deeper outside the capital, closer to last week's quake epicenter.
"We're waiting for food, for water, for anything," Emmanuel Doris-Cherie, 32, said in Leogane, 25 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince. Homeless in Leogane lived under sheets draped across tree branches, and the damaged hospital "lacks everything," Red Cross surgeon Hassan Nasreddine said.
Hundreds of Canadian soldiers and sailors were deploying to that town and to Jacmel on the south coast to support relief efforts, and the Haitian government sent a plane and an overland team to assess needs in Petit-Goave, a seaside town 10 miles farther west from Leogane that was the epicenter of Wednesday's aftershock.
Many badly injured people still awaited lifesaving surgery.
"It is like working in a war situation," said Rosa Crestani of Doctors Without Borders at the Choscal Hospital. "We don't have any morphine to manage pain for our patients."
The damaged hospitals and emergency medical centers set up in Port-au-Prince needed surgeons, fuel for generators, oxygen and countless other kinds of medical supplies, aid groups said.
Physician Evan Lyon, of the U.S.-based Partners in Health, sent a message from the central University Hospital that the facility was within 24 hours of running out of key operating room supplies. Wednesday 's aftershock was yet another blow: Surgical teams and patients were forced to evacuate temporarily.
Troops of the 82nd Airborne Division were providing security at the hospital. A helicopter landing pad was designated nearby for airlifting the most critical patients to the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort.
The great white ship, 894 feet long, with a medical staff of 550, was anchored in Port-au-Prince harbor and had taken aboard its first two surgical patients by helicopter late Tuesday even as it was steaming in.
It joined the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and other U.S. warships offshore, along with the French landing craft Francis Garnier, which carried a medical team, hundreds of tents and other aid.
The seaborne rescue fleet will soon be reinforced by the Spanish ship Castilla, with 50 doctors and 450 troops, and by three other U.S.-based Navy vessels diverted from a scheduled Middle East mission. Canadian warships were already in Haitian waters, and an Italian aircraft carrier, the Cavour, also will join the flotilla with medical teams and engineers.
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said at U.N. headquarters in New York that it's believed that 3 million people are affected, with 2 million of those needing food for at least six months.
Concerns still persisted that looting and violence that flared up in pockets in recent days could spread.
U.S. troops — some 11,500 soldiers, Marines and sailors onshore and offshore as of Wednesday and expected to total 16,000 by the weekend — were seen slowly ratcheting up control over parts of t he city. Marine reinforcements were to help escort aid deliveries.
But Wednesday's aftershock, the stench of the lingering dead, and the tears and upstretched hands of helpless Haitians made clear that the country's tragedy will continue for months and years as this poor land counts and remembers its losses.