Tags: Haiti | quake | aid | relief

Haiti Quake Aid Facing Formidable Obstacles

Thursday, 14 January 2010 10:35 PM

A seriously damaged national port. An already swamped airport. Hospitals in shambles. A homeless president. No fuel. A capital city without phone service or electricity.

As military and rescue teams began to stream in Thursday from the U.S. and other countries, veterans of past disasters say the grim realities of the Haiti earthquake set it apart from many other calamities, including the 2004 tsunami that devastated communities around the Indian Ocean, killing an estimated quarter million people.

"There are a lot of dimensions that make this an especially complicated situation," said Steve Hollingworth, chief operating officer at the Atlanta-based relief group CARE.

Haiti's almost nonexistent government and its battered infrastructure are among the top challenges that will plague relief efforts in coming days and weeks, aid veterans say. Also high on their lists: the country's extreme poverty and history of violence.

"When a country's capital city is decimated, you lose a lot in terms of staging and organization," said Randy Martin, head of global emergency operations at Mercy Corps International.

Military and aid groups began to encounter huge obstacles getting relief into the country, less than two days after the earthquake killed an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 people. U.S. military specialists reestablished communications at the Port-au-Prince airport, but a lack of fuel and a crammed tarmac prompted the Haitian government to halt incoming flights. While one airport runway was usable, air-traffic control was limited, able to handle only four aircraft at a time, logistics companies said.

The quake also damaged Haiti's main port in Port-au-Prince. The port has "collapsed and is not operational," said Maersk Line's Mary Ann Kotlarich.

The disarray at the port stands to be a major obstacle to the relief effort, as the U.S. Navy and other ships carrying supplies have nowhere to dock. Numerous maritime companies are trying to devise stop-gap solutions, but nothing is in place yet.

"Nothing has been proposed that would really be a solution at this point," says Mark Miller of Crowley Maritime Corp., a Jacksonville, Fla., shipping company that maintains an extensive logistics network in the Caribbean.

With phone service still crippled, President Barack Obama was unable to reach Haiti President Rene Préval by phone Thursday—an illustration of the difficulties ahead in coordinating relief without telephones.

Obama administration officials said they were moving to help restore at least limited cell-phone service within the city as quickly as possible. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Fox News that a chief aim of the U.S. effort was to "assert authority" and to "reinstate the government" in Haiti.

At the White House, President Obama said the U.S. was mounting "one of the largest relief efforts in our recent history," and announced $100 million in initial funds for the humanitarian mission.

The U.S. maintains dozens of warehouses in Central and Southern America with stores of tents, water, and food, but none of the depots are in Haiti and it may take days for supplies to be flown to Haiti or brought in aboard military ships. Haiti's ports and roads were so badly damaged in the quake that distributing the aid once it arrives will likely take even more time.

"Haiti had extremely limited infrastructure even before the earthquake hit," said Mark Schneider, the former assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. "That makes providing relief an absolutely monumental challenge."

Mr. Schneider, now a senior vice president at the International Crisis Group, said the speed and breadth of the U.S. relief efforts went far beyond those of any other country.

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A seriously damaged national port. An already swamped airport. Hospitals in shambles. A homeless president. No fuel. A capital city without phone service or electricity.
Thursday, 14 January 2010 10:35 PM
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