published Saturday, January 16th, 2010

As aid pours in, haiti struggles to distribute it

By GINGER THOMPSON and DAMIEN CAVE

c.2010 New York Times News Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As the focus on Saturday began turning away from Haitians lost to those who were spared, a sprawling assembly of international officials and aid workers struggled to fix a troubled relief effort after Tuesday’s devastating earthquake.

While countries and relief agencies have showered aid on Haiti, little of it is reaching increasingly desperate Haitians who lack food, clean water or shelter. And across the city, there were reports of intensifying looting and violence, particularly around aid distribution points.

The problems, aid officials say, stem in part from the best of intentions. Countries around the world have responded to Haiti’s call for help as never before. And they are flooding the country with supplies and relief workers that its collapsed infrastructure and nonfunctioning government are in no position to handle.

Haitian officials instead are relying on the United States and the United Nations, but coordination is posing a critical challenge, aid workers said. An airport hobbled by only one runway, a ruined port whose main pier splintered into the ocean, roads blocked by rubble, widespread fuel shortages and a lack of drivers to move the aid into the city are compounding the problems.

Across Port-au-Prince, hunger was on the rise. About 1,700 people camped on the grass in front of the prime minister’s office compound in the Petionville neighborhood, pleading for biscuits and water-purification tablets distributed by aid groups. Haitian officials said tens of thousands of victims had already been buried.

President Barack Obama announced Saturday that former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton would lead a national drive to raise money to help the survivors.

“Presidents Bush and Clinton will help the American people to do their part, because responding to disaster is the work of all of us,” he said.

Later on Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was to arrive here on a military cargo jet, and was scheduled to meet President Rene Preval in the afternoon to discuss continuing relief efforts. Her plane was bringing in more aid, including food and water supplies.

Even as the United States took a leading role in aid efforts, some aid officials were describing misplaced priorities, accusing U.S. officials of focusing their efforts on getting their people and troops installed and lifting their citizens out.

Four critical days after an earthquake flattened Haiti’s capital, the World Food Program was finally able to land flights of food, medicine and water, desperately needed by tens of thousands of victims.

The United States is now managing air traffic control at the airport, helicopters are flying relief missions from warships off the coast, and 9,000 to 10,000 troops are expected to arrive by Monday to help with the relief effort.

The World Food Program flights tried to land Thursday and Friday, an official with the agency said. But those flights had been diverted so that the United States could land troops and equipment, and lift Americans and other foreigners to safety.

“There are 200 flights going in and out every day, which is an incredible amount for a country like Haiti,” said Jarry Emmanuel, the air logistics officer for the agency’s Haiti effort. “But most of those flights are for the United States military.”

He added: “Their priorities are to secure the country. Ours are to feed. We have got to get those priorities in sync.”

But U.S. relief groups said they were doing all they could. At the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince on Saturday, U.S. rescue teams continued to roll out of the gate. Most of their equipment had arrived, and at any given time, the teams were working on several different piles of rubble throughout the city.

“People need to get the message, we’re out, we’re doing stuff,” said Craig Luecke, a coordinator with the search and rescue team from Fairfax County, Va., who has been tracking U.S. efforts in advance of Hillary Clinton’s arrival here. “My Google Earth map is filled with American activity. They’re out 24 hours a day.”

Though the numbers are fluid, he said four U.S. teams had helped pulled nearly two dozen survivors from the rubble.

Some aid workers were critical of the United Nations, as well, arguing that the agency had the most on-the-ground experience in Haiti and should be directing efforts better.

But many U.N. employees were killed in the earthquake. And Stephanie Bunker, the spokeswoman for the U.N. humanitarian relief effort, said Saturday that a U.N. logistics team was trying to coordinate with other agencies, and that the peacekeeping forces were trying to clear roads.

Criticism of the United Nations “may reflect people’s frustrations with the entire effort because it is such a grueling effort,” Bunker said. “It takes a long time for all this stuff to be cleared up and fixed.”

She noted that all modes of transportation — air, road and sea — were still limited. Fuel supplies are scant, she said, and a crippling shortage of trucks remains a problem.

Some airplanes, after circling the capital’s airport, have been turning back or landing in Santo Domingo, in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Its airfield was growing ever more crowded with diverted flights.

“We’re all going crazy,” said Nan Buzard, senior director of international response and programs for the American Red Cross. “You don’t have any kind of orderly distributions of food, water, shelter, clothing. The planes are in the air, the materials are purchased. It remains a profoundly frustrating situation for everyone.”

France complained to the United States that two of its aid planes had been turned away from the airport by the U.S. military, The Associated Press reported Saturday. One plane was carrying a field hospital, Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet said.

Preval urged aid providers to avoid arguments.

“This is an extremely difficult situation,” he told The Associated Press. “We must keep our cool to do coordination and not to throw accusations at each other.”

Around Port-au-Prince, it was becoming clear on Saturday that even if more trucks came, an acute fuel shortage was at least as serious a problem. At several gas stations, attendants or customers said that even though the stations had fuel left in their tanks, there was no electricity to work the pumps.

Rick Perera, a communications officer at Care, stood at the airport Saturday overseeing staff unloading pallets of water purification tablets — part of his agency’s first load of supplies into Haiti.

He said agencies had had trouble identifying and prioritizing where to send assistance. And the communities getting help are largely the ones where humanitarian agencies had long established projects or contacts.

“We have seen some communities organizing themselves,” he said. “But most are too overwhelmed, and we want to be careful not to overlook them.”

With the logjam at the airport in Port-au-Prince, some aid groups were choosing to drive into the country from the Dominican Republic.

A caravan of eight trucks from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was creeping toward the Haitian border on Saturday morning, carrying medical equipment and aid workers.

The group had originally planned to touch down in Haiti, but the closings and delays at the airport forced them to divert to Santo Domingo and unload their cargo there, said Paul Conneally, a Red Cross spokesman who was traveling with the convoy. Conneally estimated that the overland route would delay their arrival in Haiti by 12 hours.

“Every minute counts, I know that, but we cannot be on standby to land at Port-au-Prince because it may not be for two or three days,” he said. “It’s problematic to go across roads, but it’s a small price to pay.”

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