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Elusive aid for all in Haiti

Jan. 20, 2010

By Jonathan M. Katz
Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The world still can't get enough food and water to the hungry and thirsty one week after an earthquake shattered Haiti's capital. The airport remains a bottleneck, the port is a shambles. The Haitian government is invisible, nobody has taken firm charge, and the police have largely given up.

Even as U.S. troops landed in Seahawk helicopters Tuesday on the manicured lawn of the National Palace, the colossal efforts to help Haiti are proving inadequate because of the scale of the disaster and the limitations of the world's governments. Expectations exceeded what money, will and military might have been able to achieve so far in the face of unimaginable calamity.

"God has abandoned us! The foreigners have abandoned us!" yelled Micheline Ursulin, tearing at her hair as she rushed past a large pile of decaying bodies.

Three of her children died in the quake and her surviving daughter is in the hospital with broken limbs and a serious infection.

Rescue groups continue to work, even though time is running out for those buried by the quake. A Mexican team created after that nation's 1985 earthquake rescued Ena Zizi, 69. She had survived a week buried in the ruins of the residence of Haiti's Roman Catholic archbishop, who died. Other teams pulled two women from a collapsed university building.

But most efforts are focused on getting aid to survivors.

"We need so much. Food, clothes, we need everything. I don't know whose responsibility it is, but they need to give us something soon," said Sophia Eltime, a 29-year-old mother of two who has been living under a bedsheet with seven members of her extended family. She said she had not eaten since Jan. 12.

It is not just Haitians questioning why aid has been so slow for victims of one of the worst earthquakes in history -- an estimated 200,000 dead, 250,000 injured and 1.5 million homeless. Officials in France and Brazil and aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders have complained of bottlenecks, skewed priorities and a crippling lack of leadership and coordination.

"TENS OF THOUSANDS OF EARTHQUAKE VICTIMS NEED EMERGENCY SURGICAL CARE NOW!!!!!" said press a release from Partners in Health, cofounded by Dr. Paul Farmer, the deputy U.N. envoy to Haiti. "Our medical director has estimated that 20,000 people are dying each day who could be saved by surgery." No details were provided on how the figure was determined.

The reasons are varied:

-- Both national and international authorities suffered great losses in the quake, taking out many of the leaders best suited to organize a response;

-- Woefully inadequate infrastructure and a near-complete failure in telephone and Internet communications complicate efforts to reach millions of people forced from homes turned into piles of rubble;

-- Fears of looting and violence keep aid groups and governments from moving as quickly as they'd like;

-- Pre-existing poverty and malnutrition put some at risk even before the quake hit.

Governments have pledged nearly $1 billion in aid, and thousands of tons of food and medical supplies have been shipped. But much remains trapped in warehouses, diverted to the neighboring Dominican Republic, or left hovering in the air. The non functioning seaport and impassable roads complicate efforts to get aid to the people.

Aid is being turned back from the single-runway airport, where the U.S. military has come under criticism for poorly prioritizing flights, although the U.S. Air Force said Tuesday it had raised the facility's daily capacity from 30 flights before the quake to 180 on Tuesday.

"We're doing everything in our power to speed aid to Haiti as fast as humanly possible," said Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of U.S. Southern Command.

The World Food Program said more than 250,000 ready-to-eat food rations had been distributed in Haiti by Tuesday, only a fraction of the 3 million people thought to be in desperate need. There have been anecdotal stories of starvation among the old and infirm, but apparently no widespread starvation -- yet.

The WFP said it needs to deliver 100 million ready-to-eat rations in the next 30 days. Based on pledges from the United States, Italy and Denmark, it has 16 million in the pipeline.

So far, international relief efforts have been unorganized, disjointed and insufficient to help a people in need of such basics as food, water and medical care. Doctors Without Borders says urgently needed surgical equipment and drugs have been turned away five times, even though the agency received advance authorization to land.

"It's frustrating to see planes landing, officials coming in and military planes coming in, carrying military personnel and their supplies," Marie-Noelle Rodrigue, the group's deputy operations manager, said from Paris. "We see there are priorities being given but don't understand on what grounds."

French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet went as far as demanding a U.N. investigation into U.S. aid efforts, although his boss, President Nicolas Sarkozy, defended the U.S. on Tuesday, as did the United Nations. U.N. spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs credited the U.S. with bringing in great amounts of aid and expertise, and said the airport wouldn't be working without U.S. military help.

U.S. defense officials acknowledged bottlenecks, but said they have been working aggressively to eliminate them. They note that many military flights also carry aid, and White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said that by Monday, fewer than a third of flights into Haiti were U.S. military.

About 2,200 Marines established a beachhead west of Port-au-Prince on Tuesday to help speed aid delivery, in addition to 9,000 already on the ground. Lt. Cmdr. Walter Matthews, a U.S. military spokesman, said helicopters were ferrying aid from the airport into Port-au-Prince and the nearby town of Jacmel as fast as they can.

The U.N. was sending in reinforcements as well: The Security Council voted Tuesday to add 2,000 peacekeepers to the 7,000 already in Haiti, and 1,500 more police to the 2,100-strong international force.

"The floodgates for aid are starting to open," Matthews said at the airport. "In the first few days, you're limited by manpower, but we're starting to bring people in."

The WFP's Alain Jaffre said the U.N. organization was starting to find its stride after distribution problems, and hoped to help 100,000 people by Wednesday.

"The problem is the logistics: getting the food to the people," he said. "We're challenged by trucks, staff, roads and security, in declining order of importance."

The effort was also hampered by a lack of leadership.

With its seat of power destroyed and many officials dead, the Haitian government has largely disappeared. President Rene Preval hasn't addressed the nation, beyond sending one taped message to a radio station. He is only known to have toured briefly one of the thousands of sites where people are dead or dying.

First lady Elisabeth Debrosse acknowledged that Preval "is limited in his capacity to act," but insisted: "The president is in control and is trying to focus on what the priorities are and those priorities are changing every minute."

The U.N., which itself lost its Haiti headquarters, its top two officials and many others inside, has tried to fill the void but has struggled to bring the international relief effort together. The United States has taken charge of pieces of the operation but coordination has been uneven.

"Is the U.N. going to run it or is the military? Somebody needs to take charge here," said Robert Kind of CMC Construction. He was at the airport looking for somebody to get a generator that his company donated to a University of Miami field hospital. It took three days to fly the generator in, he said, and it has sat on the grass since Monday.

Rodrigue, of Doctors Without Borders, said it would have been helpful if immediately after the quake, all the aid donors and governments responding to the crisis had had a discussion "to know who's in charge, what are the procedures, when everyone knew that bringing material into Haiti was going to be an issue."

"We didn't see that," she said.

Hanging over the entire effort was an overwhelming fear among relief officials that Haitians' desperation would spill over into violence.

"We've very concerned about the level of security we need around our people when we're doing distributions," said Graham Tardif, who heads disaster-relief efforts for the charity World Vision. The U.N., the U.S. government and other organizations echoed such fears.

Occasionally, those fears have been borne out. Looters rampaged through part of downtown Port-au-Prince on Tuesday, just four blocks from where U.S. troops landed at the presidential palace.

Hundreds of looters fought over bolts of cloth and other goods with broken bottles and clubs.

"That is how it is. There is nothing we can do," said Haitian police officer Arina Bence, who was trying to keep civilians out of the looting zone for their own safety.

U.S. officials insisted they had no plans to take on a policing role in Haiti, and the arriving Marines are allowed to use force only in self-defense, according to U.S. Maj. Gen. Cornell A. Wilson Jr. But troops of the 82nd Airborne took up positions outside the General Hospital on Tuesday when the crowd grew too large.

Haitian Police Chief Mario Andersol said he can muster only 2,000 of the 4,500 officers in the capital and said even they "are not trained to deal with this kind of situation."

Some police are urging citizens to take the law into their own hands, and neighborhoods are creating their own security forces, forming night brigades and machete-armed mobs to fight bandits. "If you don't kill the criminals, they will all come back," one officer shouted over a loudspeaker in the Cite Soleil slum.

Despite the criticism, some aid officials defended their efforts and said the world is judging them too harshly.

"The aid is never fast enough for the armchair aid workers sipping their lattes," said Steve Matthews, a Haiti-based spokesman for World Vision. "Despite the slowness, aid is flowing. Things are happening. We understand the race against time. Everyone's working 16-hour days.

"Critics want a two-hour movie with a happy ending."