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Frustration mounts as relief sits out of reach in Haiti

DELMAS, Haiti — If it had all gone according to plan, Jared Brown would not be standing here, tennis shoes planted on 5,500 pounds of American rice on a truck in the poorest country in the West, struggling to apologize.

If the plan had worked, if they had caught the first flight or the second, if all their boxes of donated tents and generators had wound up in Port-au-Prince, they might not be so angry and scared of what they're about to do.

"I apologize to everybody for the bad, bad, bad things that happened today," he says. "Everybody's angry right now. I understand that."

"Hey, let's go distribute this rice," one of them shouts. "Let's just do it!"

"The fact is I apologize from the bottom of my heart," says Brown, 31. "This trip should not have been like . . ."

"I think your point is made," says another.

"Why are we just talking?" says another. "Let's go. Now."

The engine cranks and the group of Americans called Project 81 ride their good intentions through the streets of Port-au-Prince, bonfires burning in the alleys, toward a narrow street, toward 500 hungry and desperate shadows.

How hard is it to help Haiti?

It takes more than good intentions.

• • •

Last Friday in Miami.

Brown, the man behind Project 81, is talking to a translator who is talking into a cell phone. On the other end of the line is Gael Jean, the mayor of Delmas, a region in central Port-au-Prince with 800,000 residents who are hungry and tired.

"Tell him we're very honored to serve him," Brown says.

"He really appreciates your presence and your help will not be wasted," the translator says.

The team is all here — 16 of them, including Brown, an insurance planner from Minnesota who used to live in Tarpon Springs. Two Haitians from St. Petersburg. A teacher from Tampa. Paramedics from Lakeland and Tarpon Springs. A cop and youth pastor from Raleigh. A doctor and nurse from Denver. And a railroad engineer from Montana, who just felt he had to do something good for the world.

They all have seats on a free flight to Port-au-Prince. They plan to take a few tons of donations to Delmas. They want to set up a clinic and pass out tents, and carve a corner of hope into the catastrophe. Simple as that.

Mayor Gael Jean is thankful.

He can't get to his office without splitting a sea of families waiting for a dwindling supply of city-bought food. He has buried many, and he drives daily by tent towns built by those he has not, quilts of gray and blue and orange that blanket suffering.

But it is hard for a Haitian, no matter his status, to navigate the bureaucracy of aid. Warehouses across Haiti are packed to the rafters with supplies, but Gael Jean can't get through the gates.

Need and relief are neighbors. Brown wants to introduce them. "Tell him," Brown says, "that if we work together, it will be a success."

• • •

Good intentions look like this: high school kids dragging bags of clothes off a bus for a relief drive in Tampa. Boxes of donated hospital supplies in the back of a U-Haul. Three hundred donated flash lights flown for $500 from Raleigh, N.C. Sixteen people from across the country waking early on Saturday and lugging backpacks to the airport to hop a flight to Port-au-Prince, a flight that is canceled by a blizzard, a cancellation that sends all those good intentions into a tailspin.

• • •

Port-au-Prince smells of smoke and dust and death. Clothes hang from trees. Hogs root in garbage.

Six members of Project 81 made it here Sunday and pitched tents in the mayor's yard. The rest are in airport limbo. Their cargo, all those donations, sits on pallets at an airport in Opa-locka.

They'll try to get relief for the people of Delmas any way they can. How hard can that be?

They load into trucks and head across town to Food for the Poor, which has a warehouse guarded by the Jamaica Defense Force. The pastor knows a man who knows a woman there, and this loose connection gets them a meeting upstairs, past pallets of water and pasta, past others in a long line.

"What can we do for you?" asks an administrator.

Brown explains that they would like some food to take to Delmas.

"You have to send a report."

Report?

"We want to make sure that what we give goes directly to the people," she says. "So you have to send a report like everyone."

She explains a fact of life here: Even if warehouses are stocked with supplies, they're surrounded by red tape.

If they do the report now, they can have food by Thursday. But they're already behind and they are leaving on Wednesday.

Next?

The day turns into hours of waiting and inching through traffic and burning gas, the mayor in the driver's seat, people still hungry. The U.N. compound. The U.S. Embassy. The U.N. hub. Nothing.

"It's so frustrating that we had food, water, generators, all those good supplies," says the nurse "And we're just sitting here."

Back in the car, back across town, to a World Health Organization warehouse. The mayor waits in the truck while the others take a seat before a tired Frenchman who is having a hard time understanding what the Americans want. Free meds? Immediately?

"There are 18 of us and we're ready to work but we just feel like we're getting in the way," says the nurse. "We feel like tourists."

The man slides a form across the table.

"You don't have this form in English?" one of them asks.

"This is a French-speaking country," the man says. "So no."

"Do you have food?" Brown asks. Behind him, a line has formed.

The man rubs his forehead. No food, he says. Just medical. They have to pay for the supplies and it will take several days. Defeated, they head back to the trucks.

"There's so much aid that needs to be done," Brown says. "But we've just been running around in circles for 24 hours."

Back to the mayor's office. A crowd at the gate.

"They are coming to my office every day," the mayor says. "They are coming to ask for food, for tents, for anything."

As the trucks pull through, a little boy holds out his arms.

Inside, workers sort what's left of the city's supplies. Someone gets word that the rest of the team, all except two who couldn't find flights, is arriving tonight. With no supplies, the new arrivals will just join the wait.

"I'm about ready to just go buy some rice and beans," Brown says, sensing the frustration, "and just start handing it out."

• • •

Morning here sounds like roosters crowing and dogs barking and trucks rumbling over gravel roads, and the kindergarten class at TLC Barefoot School, open for the first time since the earthquake and six students short, practicing the alphabet.

At a tent city that bloomed on a soccer field, mothers living under sheets swat flies and nurse their babies. The woman in the middle of the mess knows the morning calm won't last. Dr. Junie Bertrand was visiting from New York when the quake struck. She stayed, and for a month has maintained a clinic here almost on her own, treating the 900 families who now call this field home. Nineteen babies have been born here.

"They can't eat," says Bertrand. "They can't sleep. We're seeing diarrhea, vomiting, fever, stomach problems, blood pressure problems, panic attacks. Sometimes at night there are fights over food."

Bertrand says the only aid to arrive was from Humanity First and the Dominican Red Cross, and it wasn't enough.

"The (nongovernmental organizations) are fighting for power because there's money involved," she says. "World Vision came in to distribute food tickets a while ago. They had the media with them. They had 300 tickets and people started fighting for the tickets and they took pictures then walked out because they said the crowd was out of control. They only gave out 30 tickets.

"They were looking for news."

Project 81 arrives, and in seconds a line forms. Finally, 72 hours late, the doctor and nurse and paramedics start to work.

• • •

The rest of the group goes in search of rice, in search of something to do. They wind through the streets, past a man sitting, just sitting, on a giant pile of what used to be a building, and pull into a store, where stacks of food are guarded by a man with a shotgun. Brown heads inside with one of the mayor's men.

"How much is a bag of rice?" he asks.

They tell him 234 Haitian dollars, or about $30. That's up since the quake, even though donated rice has been flowing into the country. There is a strong market for donated rice that winds up on the streets of Haiti. Same for medical supplies. A market has even developed for food vouchers.

Brown orders 100 bags and hands the man $3,000, donations to Project 81.

"I'll need a receipt," he says.

Workers haul 55-pound bags, four at a time, and load them in the mayor's truck. They're stamped AMERICAN RICE.

The Americans ride through Port-au-Prince taking photos and video of the damage, of children playing and people working. They stop in front of the Presidential Palace for more photos. They visit a hospital filled with hot, hurt people while Brown tries to get more supplies.

On the way back, the caravan splits up. The rice truck barrels through neighborhoods, lost, and parks on a narrow street. The Haitians stare at the Americans and their cargo, which now includes tents and generators. The driver doesn't know where he's supposed to go.

Ten minutes pass, then 20, 30. They're tense and getting angry.

One of them asks, "What are we doing here?"

• • •

Dark now. Police escort. Narrow road.

They had made it back to the clinic, for another round of apologies and frustration. Then they decided to go ahead and pass out the food, despite the dark.

People come running. Two hundred gather on a wall, feet from the truck. More push and pull on the ground. The driver kills the engine.

"Why is he turning the truck off?"

The street is packed. People yell and shove. An old woman falls. A line forms in the headlights and winds down the hill.

Half the team jumps down. The others drop bags of rice over the edge and the Americans walk one by one to the head of the line and hand them to the Haitians.

The crowd surges. Some of the women struggle under the weight of the bags.

The rice is gone in minutes.

"Twenty left!" someone yells.

"Save 10 for the police!" Brown shouts back.

"That's it! Let's go."

The team hurries back into the truck, the police watching, the people still yelling, still hungry, some angry. The engine cranks and the truck begins to split the crowd of thin shadows in the headlights, a crowd that will go back to flies and sheet-tents and the smell of human destruction.

"Now that's how distribution is supposed to go!" Brown says. He looks around at his team. "Everybody want to go grab a pizza?"

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

Frustration mounts as relief sits out of reach in Haiti 02/13/10 [Last modified: Sunday, December 22, 2013 1:05am]

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