x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Haiti: anger at sluggish response

Desperate earthquake survivors resort to digging through the rubble as medical and food supplies remain scarce.

People fight over goods scavenged from the rubble of collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince.
People fight over goods scavenged from the rubble of collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince.

WASHINGTON // A US nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, docked off the coast of Haiti yesterday, carrying 19 helicopters, a water-purification plant and tonnes of medicines - but many Haitians were asking why desperately needed aid has been so slow to reach them. The US said 10,000 troops would be on the ground on Monday to help with the distribution of aid, and to provide security amid increasing signs of desperation among people who have lost everything and are now struggling for survival.

Three days after a magnitude 7.0 temblor tore through the tiny half-island nation, killing as many as 50,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, Haitians were digging through the rubble with their bare hands yesterday while medical care and food remained scarce. Such realities on the ground seemed to stand in stark contrast to the promises of aid pledged from across the world and were a source of growing concern as a 72-hour window to find survivors was drawing to a close.

Much of the delay, aid groups said, was being caused by the island nation's fractured infrastructure. Damage to airport runways forced authorities to turn back several flights containing aid; dysfunctional cranes at the country's main port, meanwhile, made it impossible to unload ships. The port was not expected to reopen until Monday, said Abi Weaver, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross. "It is taking a lot longer than we or any relief organisation wants," she said.

"People are very anxious. They've spent a third night outside without shelter." Chief among the concerns now is that a lack of co-ordination among the hundreds of responding relief agencies and governments will contribute to further delay. Such an uncoordinated influx of aid impeded the massive relief efforts during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. "You had 10 NGOs descending on a little fishing village in Sri Lanka all trying to provide boats," Elizabeth Ferris, an expert on humanitarian aid at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said of the tsunami relief. "Some fisherman got 10 boats, while people living 10 miles way didn't get anything. There was a real inequity in terms of distribution."

But experts say the inadequacies of the tsunami assistance prompted major reforms, including the implementation of United Nation's "cluster approach", which calls for various groups to be organised by their area of expertise, such as food health, shelter and security. "The whole aim of the cluster approach is to bring people around the same table, identify what the gaps are, identify what the capacity and needs are, and then respond in a co-ordinated fashion," Paul Garwood, a spokesman for the Action in Crises section at the World Health Organisation, said.

A WHO physician arrived in Haiti yesterday to lead the health cluster, Mr Garwood said. The group also announced the deployment of a 12-member team of health and logistics experts who specialise in mass casualty management, co-ordination of emergency health response and the management of dead bodies. Still, even with the new co-ordination, Ms Ferris said she expected a "logistical nightmare". "It's going to be a free for all," she said. "There are just so many individual groups and little community groups and church groups here in the US who are collecting shoes and water and want to get it to Haiti."

Security also has become a source of growing concern. There were reports of widespread looting and UN officials warned yesterday that looters were likely to target relief shipments. "People who have not been eating or drinking for almost 50 hours and are already in a very poor situation," a UN humanitarian spokeswoman, Elisabeth Byrs, told the Associated Press in Geneva. "If they see a truck with something, or if they see a supermarket which has collapsed, they just rush to get something to eat."

In a conversation yesterday, Barack Obama, the US president, and Rene Preval, the Haitian president, stressed the importance of co-ordinating relief efforts, according to statement from the White House press office. "The two presidents underscored the need to closely co-ordinate assistance efforts among the various parties, including the Haitian government, the United Nations, the United States and the many international partners and aid organisations on the ground," the statement said.

Mr Obama has pledged US$100 million (Dh367,000) in assistance and dispatched thousands of US military troops to Haiti. He also has enlisted the help of two of his predecessors - George W Bush and Bill Clinton - to help co-ordinate global relief efforts. He warned however of "difficult days" to come in the relief effort. Ms Ferris said she expected adequate food, shelter and water to reach the majority of Haitians in the next four days.

"But it's going to be a long haul," she said. sstanek@thenational.ae