A week after Haiti quake, aid remains elusive amid bottleneck

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The world still could not 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.

"TENS OF THOUSANDS OF EARTHQUAKE VICTIMS NEED EMERGENCY SURGICAL CARE NOW!!!!!" said press a release from Partners in Health, co-founded by Dr. Paul Farmer of Brooksville, 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 such losses vary:

• 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 would 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 nonfunctioning 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.

Doctors Without Borders said a plane carrying 12 tons of medical equipment, including drugs, surgical supplies and two dialysis machines, had been turned away three times from the Port-au-Prince airport since Sunday night, resulting in the deaths of five patients.

"We were forced to buy a saw in the market to continue amputations," coordinator Loris de Filippi said Tuesday in a statement.

The U.S. Air Force said it had raised the airport'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, enough for 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.

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 United States on Tuesday, as did the United Nations. U.N. spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs credited the United States 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 could.

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.

The World Food Program'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 today.

"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."

A week after Haiti quake, aid remains elusive amid bottleneck 01/19/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 3:16pm]

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