News & Events

Nearly a month later, relief still falls short in Haiti

By Peter Slevin

Washington Post / February 10, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Nearly one month after a powerful earthquake brought this country to a halt, Haiti is tumbling headlong through a crisis that has not begun to abate, with evidence everywhere that current relief efforts are falling short.

Despite the good intentions of the United States and the world community, weary relief workers say the coming weeks will severely test the resolve of those foreign contributors and the resourcefulness of a Haitian government that remains all but invisible.

Pressure will grow on a fledgling food distribution network backed by US soldiers that so far has largely managed to deliver only rice. From surgery to shelter to sanitation to schooling, the needs are vast and the international commitment unproven.

“The need is so overwhelming. You can’t have an initial push, and then it stops. That just won’t be enough,’’ Lane Hartill, an Africa-based Catholic Relief Services staff member, said as he walked toward a sweltering encampment of 30,000 people who have spent every hour outdoors since the Jan. 12 earthquake. In the distance, the dun-colored shapes of the makeshift shelters might have been an impressionist painter’s rendering of despair.

The sadness is sometimes suffocating, yet the agony of last month’s earthquake is being overtaken by the urgency of now. Every day, tens of thousands of Haitians face a grueling quest to find food, any food. A nutritious diet is out of the question.

Shelter is a slender part of the equation because, for those who lost their homes, there is so little shelter to seek. Hundreds of people join lines before the dawn in hopes of scoring a sack of white rice, but there is nowhere to line up for a tent, a shelter kit, or a home any sturdier than a blanket hanging from a clothesline.

Hardly anyone is being paid. For the vast majority, a daily job is out of the question. Every school in the capital is closed, an estimated 75 percent of them destroyed. Many businesses and government offices simply no longer exist. There is no postal service.

The medical calamity has moved beyond the horrific early days of assembly line amputations. Overwhelmed doctors and nurses are now facing converging streams of need, from untended wounds and the illnesses born of poor sanitation to the ailments of a population that had inferior health care long before Jan. 12.

There are not enough crutches for amputees or people to teach them how to adjust to the physics of their new bodily dimensions. The demands for treatment of all kinds, including postoperative care and rehabilitation, are “massive,’’ said Thomas Kirsch, a Johns Hopkins University physician and disaster specialist working with the International Medical Corps.

“We’re seeing as many as 500 people a day in our dinky little health care center,’’ Kirsch said, after spending a 10-hour shift doing triage in the courtyard of the state university hospital.

“We send paralyzed patients out with their families and say, ‘Good luck.’ ’’

The psychological pressure is also building. On the morning of the 24th day after the quake, Claude Douge’s family felt it was losing its collective mind. The power was out, food was scarce, a mother was crying, and two children were sick. Douge, a journalist with money to spend, had been searching fruitlessly for antibiotics for two days.

“I got everybody together and said: ‘Look, life’s not going to be like it was before. That’s over. You have to learn to fight,’ ’’ explained Douge, whose own effort to face Haiti’s new reality included deleting the names of 15 people from his mobile phone.

They’re all dead, killed in the earthquake.

At the same time, Port-au-Prince is far from the city of cadavers that it was in the first week after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck about 5 o’clock on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon. Every day sees more sidewalk commerce and open shops.

Limited amounts of food are arriving from the countryside.

The United Nations World Food Program expects shipping arrivals in Port-au-Prince to provide about 18,200 tons of rice and 6,700 tons of cooking oil and enriched corn soya flour by early next week. US government staff members have given 6,000 Haitians two-week contracts clearing streets in neighborhoods chosen by Haitian officials, and the UN Development Program has employed about 35,000 more.

“Sector by sector, we’re trying to make sure we just continue to solve problems and do better every day,’’ Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the US Agency