PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – First lady Michelle Obama made a surprise visit Tuesday to the ruins of the Haitian capital, a high-profile reminder that hundreds of thousands of people remain in desperate straits three months after the devastating earthquake.
The first lady and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, took a helicopter tour of Port-au-Prince, where hundreds of thousands of people are still homeless because of the quake, before landing at the destroyed national palace to meet President Rene Preval. They later met 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, whose husband is widely popular in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean.
The U.S. government historically 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 to the impoverished country.
Obama and Biden's visit is intended to underscore U.S. commitment to the Haitian reconstruction effort and to thank American officials who have worked in the country for the past three months, the administration said in a statement.
Obama smiled and waved her way through the wrecked center of Haiti's capital.
After greeting Preval with a kiss at the crushed national palace, she set off with Biden and Haiti's first lady, Elisabeth Debrosse Preval to a post-quake child care center where 450 boys and girls are participating in art therapy classes in converted city buses donated from Santo Domingo.
Obama jumped, danced and clapped with the singing children. Then the delegation entered one of the green buses for a painting session. Biden made a blue house, Preval a green and yellow sun. Obama painted a purple fish in the ocean.
"It was a request, the kids asked me to," she said. The children's paintings were harder to read, a mix of letters and symbols. Asked what they represented, Obama said "their lives."
People were eager for a glimpse of the first ladies at the huge Champ de Mars camp — and hopeful that they would be seen as well.
"Make sure you get a good look at us!" a man living in the camp yelled at a passing press bus.
Associated Press writer Ezequiel Abiu Lopez contributed to this report.