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Obama US Haiti

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Wednesday renewed America’s commitment to the recovery and reconstruction of earthquake-devastated Haiti, telling visiting President Rene Preval he knows the crisis has not passed.

After an Oval Office meeting, Obama stood beside Preval in the White House Rose Garden to praise the Haitian leader’s courage and the heroic work of Americans who rushed to help as rescue workers or with generous donations.

Obama said the challenge now was “to prevent a second disaster” with the start of the rainy season in a country where masses of people are without shelter.

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“The situation on the ground remains dire,” Obama said, “and people should be under no illusion that the crisis is over.”

RELATED: Why Haiti’s Earthquake Death Toll Exceeds Chile’s

More than 230,000 people perished in the ruins of the Jan. 12 earthquake. Obama called it an “international tragedy” and said he was proud the United States had played a leading role in relief efforts.

Moving forward, the president told Preval, Washington will remain a partner with Haiti in the long road to recovery and reconstruction.

The gray-bearded Preval stood erect as he listened to Obama, responding with words of gratitude.

RELATED: Family That Fled Haiti After Earthquake Caught In Chile Quake

“I thank you not only for the material support but the moral support, the psychological support that made us know we were not alone,” the Haitian leader said.

At the same time, he said, rebuilding must take place in a way that benefits the entire country, not just the most devastated areas.

He said spreading “health care, education and jobs for all men and women” across his country would prevent “migratory flows to the big cities” which produced the sprawling and poorly build slums of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Obama assured the Haitian leader that U.S. commitment “must and will endure” and that “America will be your partner.”

As Preval was in Washington, the U.S. military hospital ship Comfort lifted anchor off Haiti for the return cruise to Baltimore, Md. The Comfort has been stationed off the country’s coast for seven weeks, treating earthquake victims.

The U.S. military also is scaling back in Haiti, where Comfort treated more than 800 patients.

The total number of U.S. forces in Haiti is expected to drop to about 8,000 in coming days, from a peak of around 20,000 on Feb. 1.