PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jan 21, 2010 (AFP) - Thousands of Haitians waited by the sea on earthquake-cracked mud, surrounded by bags and babies, hoping the imminent reopening of the capital's port would allow them to flee.
The main port, a potential hub for the international campaign to feed this quake-devastated nation, was to open partially Friday, despite strong signs of damage, including buckled wharves, leaning telephone poles and slanting cranes.
With Port-au-Prince's airport overloaded with aid and military flights, many hoped the harbour would help receive massive international aid shipments for hundreds of thousands of desperate survivors of the January 12 earthquake.
But gaping fissures still slice through the pier where ships unload, and it wobbles during each of the terrifying aftershocks that have succeeded the original temblor.
"It's not good. It's a very unstable platform at this point," US Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Mike Pierno told AFP.
US Navy and US Army divers were due to start repairing the pier Friday - work that was expected to last at least several weeks - while US Coast Guard and Haitian officials will ensure it is not overused.
"Right now it's in a state where it can be repaired and we don't want to do any more damage," Pierno said.
Since the earthquake, a couple of aid ships from France and the Netherlands have unloaded supplies on the unsteady pier, while around 10 more are anchored offshore.
On the other side of the port, thousands of Haitians wait to board boats out of the capital.
Many observers have warned of a rush by desperate survivors to reach the United States by boat, but those at the port said they were heading for the town of Jeremie, where their families live, in the far west of the island.
Coast Guard officials said that, although there were no signs of a mass migration, it was to be expected.
"Everything points to it, but it's not happening now," said Pierno, adding that people would probably set off from the north of the island.
Roger Rouzier, a shipping company general director who has been using the port for 15 years, said US naval forces were patrolling a cordon off Port-au-Prince to prevent the departure of boats full of refugees.
"US officials are taking measures against it," Rouzier said.
The shipping company owner now controlled the immediate future of those camped out at the port.
His ferry, the only boat to Jeremie, carried some 2,500 survivors away from the capital for free on Friday, three days after the quake, but then hesitated to pick up more due to a shortage of fuel.
The government has now given him 1,500 gallons (5,680 litres) of fuel to help move people out, alongside private contributions of 500 gallons (1,890 litres), he said, adding that he planned to give two more free passages.
A broad patchwork of colorful clothes and bags still filled all visible space on land, where some families had waited for days, while hundreds of others crowded on several large, wrecked ships nearby.
"I have nothing to do here, I just want to leave," said 30-year-old Pierre Louia, sitting in the mud surrounded by his family.
"When there's something to do, I'll return."
Brigadier General Mike Dana, in charge of the logistics of the US operation in Haiti, has said fuel would be shipped to the port at the weekend.
"The port is probably at 30 percent of its capacity right now," said Dana this week, but "after 21 days it will be at full capacity."
Sitting in a small fishing boat with his wife and nine-year-old son, Jean Moise said he hoped to take a boat out of the capital very soon.
"I lost two cousins and a nephew and a niece in the earthquake. We're the survivors but we have nothing," Moise said.
"Maybe in 10 or 15 years we'll manage to rebuild the country with international aid, but for now, we're in a desperate situation."