Haiti: Desperate for the world to deliver on its promises

Aid agencies are starting to wage the fight against disease, starvation and thirst

Guy Adams,David Randall
Sunday 17 January 2010 01:00
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The wretched became the desperate in Haiti yesterday as, despite an extraordinary response from a world queuing up to deliver aid, emergency supplies were still not reaching those in greatest need. In this devastated nation, that category includes all the citizens who are not among the estimated 200,000 who have died so far. "This is," said UN spokeswoman Elizabeth Byrs, "a historic disaster. We have never been confronted with such a disaster in UN memory. It is like no other."

And, if the immediate crisis were not daunting enough, the task that confronts this country, and hopefully the world, is scarcely credible. Yesterday the health minister estimated that fully three-quarters of the capital will have to be rebuilt.

Port-au-Prince yesterday was a city as tense as only a place of two million people with resources for a few thousand could be. It lacks much in the way of water, food, medical care and security – the last a powerful reason why aid has to be accompanied by troops during distribution. Such precautions are wise. Yesterday afternoon 1,000 people fought with knives, ice-picks and hammers over goods looted from shops.

But this is not yet a place without hope. Yesterday, as the international rescue squads combed debris for signs of life, the first serious amounts of aid were on their way. Some of it had arrived and was, with difficulty, being distributed. The World Food Program (WFP), for instance, is providing high-energy biscuits and ready-to-eat meals to around 8,000 people "several times a day", and hopes to be feeding a million within a fortnight.

About 600,000 humanitarian daily rations were expected to be at Haiti's airport on Saturday night. Water purification units arrived on Friday, and officials hope they will produce up to 300,000 litres of water. And a massive Red Cross convoy, bringing a 50-bed field hospital, surgical teams and an emergency telecoms unit, was due in by road late last night. President Barack Obama is staking much on the strength of the US operation, and yesterday appointed former presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush to lead a fund-raising drive. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew in yesterday, and assured Haiti's quake-ravaged people that the US was in for the long haul.

But, for all the distant bugles of the Seventh Cavalry, there were, four days after the quake, only a few places where aid was reaching the city. In some places, the desperate – or the criminal – were taking things into their own hands, and police were out in force yesterday, rounding up looters.

The most pressing needs are for clean water and to clear the city of the decomposing remains of the dead. In some places, residents painted toothpaste around their nostrils to mask the stench of death. And, on every route out of the city, there was an exodus to the countryside. Many walked with bags on their heads and shoulders; others packed vehicles with possessions, queuing for hours for petrol.

Aid

The US military is running the airport, which can now handle 90 incoming flights a day. The road to the city is clear, but narrow, and 24 US helicopters are ferrying water, food and medicine. Many aid flights have been re-directed to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island with Haiti. The subsequent road trip takes 12 hours.

By tomorrow, up to 10,000 US troops will be in or near Haiti to help distribute aid and prevent any rioting. And after reports that its stores had been looted, the WFP said the Port-au-Prince warehouse, and its stocks, were safe.

But despite this worldwide effort, the need in the capital is so great that some agencies fear sufficient aid may not arrive in time. "I don't know how much longer we can hold out," said Dee Leahy, a lay missionary from St Louis, Missouri, who was working with nuns handing out provisions from their small stockpile. "We need food. We need medical supplies. We need medicine. We need vitamins and we need painkillers. And we need it urgently."

Water

Hundreds of thousands are in desperate need of drinking water. Haiti's poorest inhabitants live in shacks with no plumbing and carry their water home from public wells. Most people depend on water delivered by trucks, but many drivers are unable or unwilling to deliver, citing blocked roads, or fearing attacks. Since the quake, at least one water treatment plant has been closed for want of electricity, and pipes for the municipal water system are damaged. No water is running in Cite Soleil, home to more than a million people.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, a few miles off the Haitian coast, is capable of distilling and delivering 35,000 gallons of water by helicopter a day. Four additional US Navy ships capable of providing 20,000 gallons of water a day are arriving soon. The charity Water Missions International has flown in 10 filtration systems, each able to produce drinking water for 5,000 people a day. Oxfam had water supplies in Haiti left over from a 2008 storm and has managed to get some 2,000 and 5,000-litre tanks into the capital.

The dead

Some 50,000 bodies have already been collected, with 40,000 of those now buried. The Prime Minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, said a toll of 100,000 dead would "seem to be the minimum", while the interior minister put that figure nearly twice as high. It seems certain the quake will be among the 10 deadliest in history.

While workers are burying many in mass graves, countless bodies remain unclaimed in the streets and the limbs of the dead protrude from crushed buildings. As temperatures rose into the high 80s, hundreds of bloated corpses were stacked outside the city morgue. Elsewhere, people pulled a box filled with bodies along a road, then used a mechanical digger to tip it into a large rubbish bin. South of the capital, workers burned more than 2,000 bodies in a rubbish dump. Not far from the ruined National Palace, a dozen bloated bodies lay uncovered on a pavement.

Health

A Red Cross convoy was due to arrive last night with supplies from the Norwegian, Finnish, Spanish, Danish and Japanese. Two larger Red Cross field hospitals will arrive later.

And, late on Friday, an El Al Boeing 777 landed with 250 Israeli medical officers and nurses ready to set up a military field hospital. A reconnaissance team set out to find a site for the 90-bed facility, which will have a full surgical unit and the capacity to treat 100 patients at a time.

At least eight hospitals and health centres in Port-au-Prince have collapsed or are too damaged to function, and many people with fractures and other serious injuries still lie in the street or on waste ground, hoping that health care will come in time. For many it will not. At the Médecins sans Frontières centre, some 100 people have died while waiting for treatment, said the mission director, Stefano Zannini. More than 3,000 injured have been treated in the Dominican Republic, including Haitian Senate President Kelly Bastien. A border hospital in Jimani is overflowing, while a clinic in Santo Domingo is fast running out of blood.

Donations

The UN is appealing for more than $560m to provide water, food, shelter, hygiene, protection and education for Haiti, with $360m already pledged by governments, led by the US commitment of $100m.

And individuals are opening their wallets all over the world. In Britain, the Disasters Emergency Committee – the umbrella organisation for leading aid agencies – received £10m in just 24 hours, it said yesterday morning. The Red Cross has received more than $35m in donations, a sum greater than that for Hurricane Katrina or the Asian tsunami. More than $9m came from using Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Text messages have generated $11m, and network carriers are looking for a faster way to release funds donated via text message. Usually these funds can take up to a month to be processed. And, yesterday, the former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier pledged $8m, a sum considerably less than the amount he made from the country during his 15-year control that ended in 1986.

Law & order

Haitian authorities have rounded up some 50 people whom they describe as "troublemakers" to prevent sporadic looting from turning into wider violence. "There have been some attempts to make trouble. There are thieves coming out," Haitian police inspector-general Jean-Yonel Trecile said. He added that half of the Haitian police force was working, with the rest caught up in the disaster and trying to help their families. At least 50 policemen were killed in the quake. UN peacekeepers are patrolling in force.

But Haiti's feared gangs do not appear to be terrorising the streets as they have in the past, locals say. A senior UN official warned that hunger could still fuel trouble if aid does not arrive promptly, but the law and order situation remains under control "for the time being".

Additional reporting by James Hague

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