Haiti: Race Against the Clock

Marguerite A. Suozzi

HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 14  (IPS) — The enormous relief effort being mounted in Haiti since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake leveled most of Port-au-Prince is facing a host of difficulties, including bottlenecks at the main airport and lack of heavy equipment to clear debris from streets and roads, aid officials say.

“The sheer level of infrastructure damage, rubble blocking roads, the damage to health services, the fact that maybe health professionals are among the casualties, disruptions in communications, electricity and water” are among the major obstacles aid workers are now confronting in Haiti, Paul Garwood, a communications officer at the World Health Organization (WHO) program, Health Action in Crises, told IPS.

Tuesday’s earthquake is the worst to hit Haiti in over 200 years. While the number of deaths and casualties has not yet been confirmed, tens of thousands of people are thought to be dead.

The main priority of the international community on the third day remains search and rescue of the dead, injured and unaccounted for, officials say.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, the U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti, stressed that Haitians also immediately need money for food, water, shelter and medical supplies, and has urged the global community to help finance what will be a massive relief effort.

The Clinton Foundation website is accepting donations directly, as are Yele Haiti, the Haitian-American musician and activist Wyclef Jean’s NGO, and most major media outlets in the U.S.

“There is no doubt we are facing a major humanitarian emergency and that a major relief effort will be required,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Wednesday morning.

Ban urged the international community to extend immediate assistance and rescue missions to Haiti.  The United Nations has already released 10 million dollars from the Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF) as part of the relief effort, and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes is expected to make a flash appeal for more financial aid on Friday.

The World Bank has pledged 100 million dollars in aid to Haiti, pending approval by the bank’s Board of Directors, and in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has cancelled 1.2 billion dollars of Haiti’s debt, freeing up this money for the drastic reconstruction that Haiti will undergo in the coming years.

However, large investments by international bodies for the future reconstruction of Haiti will not be enough to avert the immediate humanitarian crisis on the island of nine million people.

Organizations on the ground are struggling to help survivors of the quake, but many are hindered by a lack of resources and large-scale damage to their own facilities.

The United Nations and other international aid organizations with a presence in Haiti, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Red Cross, have seen damage to their facilities in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, and deaths and casualties among their personnel.

The death toll among the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) personnel has yet to be confirmed but it is estimated that over 100 people were trapped under the rubble of the peacekeeping mission’s headquarters located in the Christopher Hotel.

Twenty-two U.N. military and police fatalities have been confirmed. Tarmo Joveer, a 38-year-old Estonian bodyguard, was rescued from the rubble at Hotel Christopher just after 8 a.m. Thursday morning.  A total of eight people have been pulled from the rubble, and 13 dead bodies have been recovered from the wreckage.

“Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams on the ground have witnessed significant damage to its medical facilities, injuries to patients and staff, and an influx of wounded towards these hospitals in the capital,” according to an MSF press release.

“MSF’s Trinite trauma center hospital, a 60-bed structure and one of the only free-of-charge surgical facilities in Port-au-Prince, was seriously damaged by the quake,” the same release stated.

MSF has constructed outdoor tents as makeshift wards treating injured victims of the earthquake, according to various reports.

“The Red Cross Red Crescent has pre-positioned relief supplies for 3,000 families in Haiti. In Port-au-Prince there are enough pre-positioned supplies for 500 families. These emergency supplies consist of kitchen kits, personal hygiene kits, blankets and containers for storing drinking water,” the Red Cross announced.

Wednesday afternoon, Eric Porterfield, the spokesperson for the Red Cross, reported running out of medical supplies.  The Red Cross is sending more supplies, but when the supplies will arrive remains unknown.

The WHO is sending 12 health and logistics experts to Haiti, in addition to the approximately 90 personnel already on the ground.

The WHO’s immediate priorities are search and rescue of survivors trapped under debris, treating people who have sustained traumatic injuries, preventing the infection of wounds, providing sanitation and potable water, and ensuring that breast-feeding continues.  Preventing the spread of communicable diseases will become another major concern in the coming days.

The World Food Program is deploying resources to Haiti as well.  “WFP is immediately airlifting an additional 86 metric tons of food from its emergency hub in El Salvador, which will provide more than half a million emergency meals,” according to a statement released Wednesday by WFP’s Executive Director Josette Sheeran.

In addition, Kim Bolduc, the deputy special representative for MINUSTAH, accompanied by David Wimhurst, the chief of information for the mission, told reporters via satellite from a log base in Haiti that the WFP is establishing distribution centers for food and water in the capital, and will have enough supplies to last for approximately one week.

U.S. President Barack Obama pledged his support to the people of Haiti Wednesday morning, promising that search and rescue teams from Florida, Virginia and California would be arriving in Haiti throughout the day on Thursday.  Rescue workers from France, China, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic are on the ground already.

Obama also promised Haiti a contingent of 3,500 soldiers and 2,200 Marines, in addition to 100 million dollars in immediate aid.

In light of the disaster, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) urged the Obama administration to grant Haitians currently within the United States Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which would allow them to live and work in the U.S. for between 6 and 18 months.

“Haitians cannot return safely to their country of origin due to the extensive damage caused by the January 12th earthquake,” said a USCRI press release, adding, “Our hearts go out to the Haitian people as they struggle with the devastation brought by this earthquake.”