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Haiti Ends Search for Survivors

Simon Roughneen, January 25, 2010

Hundreds of camps like this one have been set up all over Port-au-Prince. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

"Why is there not enough for everybody?" said Clement, who walked a mile uphill on Port-au-Prince's narrow, debris-strewn streets to get to one of the first aid deliveries to some of the estimated 3 million Haitians affected by the earthquake.

Moving around the stricken Caribbean capital last week, I met dozens of groups in different parts of the city who said that they had not received any aid one week after the disaster. Others told me I was the first foreigner they had met.

Anger, frustration and confusion animated most of the Haitians I met last week. And tragedy, on a scale unimaginable. 10,000 people a day are being buried in mass graves outside the city, over 100,000 so far. Thousands more lie under the rubble.

At GOAL's first aid distribution last Wednesday, an atmosphere of tension and anticipation filled the air. With hygiene, shelter and food relief donated by the Irish, American and Canadian governments, there was enough for 300 families in this first run.

Not enough for everyone who showed up, waiting in the hot afternoon sun. Tensions grew as some people received aid, while others, who came from districts outside the area of the city where this consignment was to be delivered, were trying to access material aimed for others.

The airport can handle only six cargo planes on the ground at one time, a drop in the ocean relative to the needs in Haiti. The seaport was out of action until Friday, and the overland route from the Dominican Republic is a prohibitive six-hour drive along narrow winding roads. Not ideal terrain for big trucks carrying rice or shelter materials.

Aid workers were growing frustrated at problems beyond their control, and the people were getting angry. This remains the case. While looting and rioting has taken place across the city, some of this is attributed to the release of 4,000 criminals from the city's jail, which collapsed in the earthquake.

And this city has its dangerous spots at the best of times, with slums such as Cite Soleil no-go areas. Gang violence is common, and Brazilian-led U.N. peacekeepers have a reputation for a take-no-prisoners approach to dealing with these groups.

U.N. peacekeepers were present at the delivery, and security will be needed as the aid effort ramps up over the coming days and weeks. Haitians are forming mass camps, afraid to sleep near damaged buildings.

With 400 prisoners on the loose, homeless are feeling under threat as well. In Carrefour, a badly hit district, one man told me he and his friends formed a protection group to ensure women and children could sleep safely, in the open.

Downtown, close to the ruined Cathedral, a charred corpse lay on the street—shot and burnt by such vigilantes as a warning against looters and would-be thieves.

But despite the tension, a mix of relieved half-smiles and thankful blessings animated Wednesday's aid delivery. At last, some people had gotten something. The challenge remains, however: how to sustain aid delivery to all those in need, and to ensure Haiti rebuilds in a way that does not leave it vulnerable to the inevitable next earthquake.

Poor construction and insufficient response can mean that earthquakes kill more than they should. In 1989, a 7.0 earthquake in California killed dozens. Haiti's earthquake measured the same, but the death toll here could be as high as 200,000.

This article was an RTE World Report: http://www.rte.ie/news/worldreport/.

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