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President Obama met with President René Préval of Haiti at the White House on Wednesday.
“The situation on the ground remains dire and people should be under no illusions that the crisis is over,” Mr. Obama said after meeting with President René Préval of Haiti. With spring rains ahead, he added, “the challenge is now to prevent a second disaster.”
The two leaders stood side by side in a ceremony in the Rose Garden, after a private meeting in the Oval Office, where Mr. Obama received an update on conditions in Haiti. The Navy said the hospital ship Comfort left Haiti on Wednesday for its home port, Baltimore.
Mr. Préval offered his gratitude to the United States for its “massive, spontaneous, generous help” after the earthquake on Jan. 12 that killed more than 230,000 people and left more than one million homeless. He said the tragedy should serve as a warning for the world that the effectiveness of relief efforts “must be improved.”
The Haitian government is devising a long-range reconstruction and development plan before a donors conference set for March 31 at theUnited Nations. Mr. Préval embraced the need for decentralization and shifting government and private facilities away from the battered capital, Port-au-Prince, and also urged the creation of a team at the United Nations that would be the disaster equivalent of peacekeepers.
The Pentagon said Wednesday that about 10,000 American military service members were still in Haiti, down from the peak of 22,000. About 4,700 are based on land, and 5,300 are on ships. The decreasing presence of the military was not a signal, Mr. Obama said, that the commitment of the United States was easing.
“America’s commitment to Haiti’s recovery and reconstruction must endure and will endure,” he 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.”
The Comfort was among the most visible symbols of aid in Haiti, although it could deal with only the most urgent cases among the countless thousands of Haitians needing medical care. The ship provided the most sophisticated medical care available and treated 871 patients, but Navy officials said that it had not had any patients for more than a week.
“The situation on the ground in terms of the medical situation has improved,” said Jose Ruiz, a civilian spokesman for the United States Southern Command. “Demand for medical care is not exceeding the capacity of facilities on the ground.”
Mr. Ruiz said the duties of the remaining American forces included distributing aid, removing rubble and completing engineering assessments of damaged structures. With the Haitian government and police, as well as United Nations peacekeepers, reasserting control, he said that the American forces were largely in a supporting role.
“As you declared during last month’s national day of mourning, it is time to wipe away the tears,” Mr. Obama said. “It is time for Haiti to rebuild.”
Mr. Obama lingered in the Rose Garden, as the sun poked out of the clouds, to shake hands and sign autographs for members of the search and rescue teams that worked in Haiti. He knelt down to pat a dog from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, whose team also traveled to Haiti after the earthquake.
It remained an open question how much aid the United States would provide in the months ahead. During his visit here, Mr. Préval also met with Congressional leaders from both parties. They are expected to decide upon a new aid package, the size of which is expected to be more than $1 billion.
“The international community can pledge the resources that will be necessary for a coordinated and sustained effort,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”