Haiti Gets Worse Before It Gets Better

by Evelyn Leopold Evelyn Leopold, a freelance writer, was bureau chief for Reuters at the United Nations for 17 years until recently. At Reuters she was a news editor for North America, the editor for the company’s Africa region, and associate editor worldwide. She was a correspondent in London and in Bonn, Germany as well as in New York and in Washington. She was the recipient of an Alicia Patterson Fellowship and co-authored a book (in German) on women in East Germany. She is chair of the Dag Hammarskjöld Scholarship Fund for Journalists, was awarded the gold medal in 2000 for UN reporting by the UN Correspondents Association, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. 16.01.2010

UNITED NATIONS - Roads are jammed with the homeless sleeping under open skies. The promised food, water and medicine are slow in reaching them. The dead litter byways, some scooped up in dump trucks and unloaded into mass graves. And tens of thousands are still trapped in the rubble.

Human beings can survive without water for 72 hours - a deadline that passed in Haiti around 5 p.m. on Friday. Some live longer but decisions are being made about whether to use heavy equipment to clear debris rather than slowly search for survivors.

UN officials ask how long Haitians will continue to be patient, as bottlenecks delay mass distribution of food and water in the Caribbean nation not known for good roads in the best of times. "They have lost everything," David Wimhurst, the UN spokesman in Haiti, told reporters in New York by video-conference.

"They want us. They expect us to provide them with help, which is of course what we want them to do. But we are not in a situation yet where we can do that on a massive scale. And they are slowly getting more angry."

The United Nations has about 9,000 UN troops and police in Haiti (about 3,000 of them in Port-au-Prince) to restore order and help develop the impoverished nation of artists, singers, feudal-type landlords and extreme poverty. The American military is sending the same number. Haitian police, who had scattered after the earthquake at 5pm on Tuesday, are slowly regrouping.

The statistics alone are horrifying. The Red Cross estimates the quake affected 3 million people out of a total population of 9 million. Not only the capital has been wrecked but the quake shattered Jacmel, once a beautiful resort city 30 miles south of Port-au-Prince. Haitian officials estimate anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 deaths. UN reconnaissance aircraft reported about 30 percent of the buildings in Port-au-Prince were leveled and in some neighborhoods it was 50 percent.

Ban, Clinton Go to Haiti

On Friday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced he would visit Port-au-Prince, which diplomatic sources said would happen on Sunday. (A day after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives).

At least 330 UN personnel are missing or unaccounted for, out of roughly 12,000 peacekeepers and aid and development staff, Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said.

The tragedy is the largest one-day loss in the history of the world body.

The UN headquarters in the Christopher Hotel has been demolished. The latest confirmed death toll is 37. Of those, 36 worked for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH (the French acronym for the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti) and one from the U.N. World Food Program. But statistics are sketchy for the 1,200 Haitians employed by the world body.

More than a 100 people are believed to have perished in the Christopher Hotel alone. Among them is the chief of mission, Hedi Annabi, a Tunisian who has held senior posts in the United Nations since 1981. One miracle occurred on Thursday when an Estonian bodyguard, Tarmo Joveer, 38, walked away from the rubble unharmed after a five hour excavation by a US rescue team from Fairfax Country, Virginia. Until late Wednesday, the UN had no sensors or dogs to pinpoint survivors.

John Holmes, the UN emergency relief coordinator, told reporters there were enough field hospitals but they lacked medical personnel and supplies. One hospital is near the Haitian National Police headquarters in hopes of getting the force back to work as quickly as possible. Other officials said a hospital might be set up in a football stadium.

To treat the many injured "it is a top priority to get more doctors in there, more medical teams, field hospitals and more medical supplies to make sure we can tackle that problem," Holmes said.

The plan is to set up 15 tent cities on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince where people can live for the foreseeable future. Holmes announced a "flash appeal" of $560 million for food, medicine, water and other supplies but predicted the figures would have to be revised as the need grew,

"Given the number of people in the streets, without homes, we must provide shelter --- we need tents, and more tents," Ban told reporters.

The UN World Food Program is gearing up to feed at least one million people within two weeks and two million within a month but so far has only been able to feed thousands.

Who's in charge?

On the UN side, Ban sent Edmond Mulet of Guatemala, an assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping who had switched jobs with Annabi as head of the UN mission in Haiti. In charge of UN humanitarian coordination is Kim Bolduc, a Vietnamese-born Canadian, who also addressed the press (in fluent English, French and Portuguese) by video on Thursday.

They are working out of an operation center with satellite communications at the Toussaint l'Ouverture International Airport, short of space to unload planes and short of fuel to transport the goods into town.

In Washington, the US Agency for International Development has its own center to track the massive American supplies and personnel to its teams in Haiti.

But there is no central website to trace who is doing what and where the money is going as there was during the 2004 Asian tsunami.

"There needs to be some transparency as well as accountability on how this money should be effectively and properly used," Ban said in response to a question. 'That we will discuss later,"

But Haitian President Rene Préval wants it discussed now, telling the secretary-general in a Friday phone call that "the biggest problem Haiti faced was coordinating all the aid efforts," according to a UN statement. Ban wants Mulet to coordinate efforts, along with the government.

But with dozens of governments around the world helping and some 10,000 non-governmental groups of varying competence in and out of Haiti--we will see.

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