US Opens Haiti Airport to More Flights

Marguerite A. Suozzi

HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 19  (IPS) — Amid criticism that the U.S. Defense Department was prioritizing military and rescue air traffic to earthquake-stricken Haiti, U.S. officials controlling the country’s main airport have agreed to guarantee landing slots for planes carrying humanitarian aid, U.N. officials say.

Logistical challenges remain the primary obstacle to easing the growing humanitarian crisis in Haiti, which has adversely affected some three million people, according to Red Cross estimates.

Bottlenecks at the airport in Port-au-Prince delayed the delivery of much-needed food, water and medical supplies over the weekend, leading some to blame the U.S. military officials in charge of operations at the small airport.

French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet lodged a formal protest with U.S. authorities via the French embassy. He was quoted as saying that, “This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti.”

An air logistics official with the World Food Programme also complained that “their [The U.S. military’s] priorities are to secure to country.  Ours are to feed.  We have got to get those priorities in sync.”

Benoit Leduc, an emergency coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), told reporters via teleconference from Haiti Monday morning that three of the organisation’s cargo planes and two MSF planes carrying expatriate staff were refused landing at Toussaint Louverture International Airport and had to land across the border in Santo Domingo, delaying the delivery of supplies by 48 hours.

“Concretely there’s been only ad hoc food distribution, water distribution, or any action in assistance to the displaced people in town,” Leduc told reporters.

Since then, the U.S. military has agreed to grant landing priority to flights carrying humanitarian aid.

“An agreement on guaranteed landing slots for aircraft carrying humanitarian assistance means that the flow of aid to the people of Haiti will increase dramatically in the coming days,” according to Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program.

“Within the next week, WFP aims to move the equivalent of 10 million ready-to-eat meals so that people whose homes have been destroyed, and who have no access to cooking facilities can feed their families,” said Sheeran.

Capital’s Port Also Seriously Damaged

The city’s major port has also been largely destroyed, though Catholic Relief Services (CRS) was able to deliver aid to Haiti on Sunday in a shipment that docked at the one jetty that is still marginally operational, according to Pat Johns, agency director for staff safety and security at CRS.

“U.S. Marines came in and provided us with security. Once you leave the immediate port area and you’ve got food, there is going to be potential for riots,” Johns said.

Johns also said he it will be at least 60 to 90 days before the port is restored to any degree of normalcy.

Damaged roads have made land travel difficult as well, according to Johns. “The roads are terrible, and with a lot of heavy truck volume they are going to get worse. There is debris all over Port-au-Prince,” Johns told IPS. “I would hope this is where the U.S. Department of Defense can step up to the plate and help.”

Tens of Thousands were killed in the quake, and many more left homeless.  As hopes fade for rescuing any more victims buried beneath the rubble, humanitarian workers are focusing on treating the wounded and distributing food and water.

However, their efforts have been constrained by terrible working conditions and limited supplies, officials say.

Catholic Relief Services is hoping to provide 50,000 people or 10,000 families with immediate relief and is launching a fundraising campaign to generate a target 25 million dollars.

Monetary pledges are continuing to flood in. The Financial Tracking Service, which monitors global humanitarian aid flows managed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), reports that about 273 million dollars has been committed or contributed to Haiti as part of the disaster relief, and 413 million dollars has been committed, though not yet received.

ReliefWeb reports that 19 percent, or about 108 million dollars, of the 575-million-dollar flash appeal issued last Friday by John Holmes, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, has been contributed or committed so far.

Susana Malcorra of Argentina, the head of the Department of Field Support, told reporters the challenges to operating an effective relief effort are immense.

“The size of the humanitarian response is huge, so figures have to be adjusted,” she said in reference to raising the number of United Nations military and police personnel by 2,000 and 1,500 people, respectively, as a result of mounting security and operations concerns.

Six days after the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the nation, desperation among Haitians has led to some looting and violence on the streets of the capital, which has been left largely in ruins, although most people are sharing what little supplies they have.

“I saw vast destruction and vast need. Haiti needs immediate and urgent support, and it requires a massive response from the international community,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters on Monday, after a brief visit to the stricken island over the weekend.

On Saturday, the U.N. confirmed the deaths of three of its top ranking officials in Haiti: Special Representative to Haiti, Hédi Annabi, his Deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa and Acting Police Commissioner Doug Coates of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.