Tales from the Trail

Helping Haiti: the nightmare scenario

January 14, 2010

QUAKE-HAITI/About the only thing that has gone right in the Haitian earthquake is the weather.

The dry, warm nights have been kind to the multitudes of homeless, injured and terrified Haitians sleeping out in streets, parks and pavements all over the nation. Not to mention the ever-growing legion of foreign rescuers, aid-workers and journalists who — like the locals — fear sleeping indoors because of still-rumbling aftershocks.

Apart from that, it has been a sheer nightmare for millions of Haitians, and for aid-groups wanting to help them, after the worst disaster on record in the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation. No one knows the death-toll, and many bodies still lie untouched in the street, but clearly thousands, or tens of thousands, have perished. The Red Cross here estimates 45-50,000 dead, and 3 million injured and homeless.

It could not have happened to a more vulnerable nation.

Battered by storms in recent years, and still suffering from a long history of political turmoil, Haiti has struggled in the past to cope with far lesser disasters. Its government has precious few resources and the collapsed roof of the white presidential palace in downtown Port-au-Prince symbolizes its impotence. And of course many officials and policemen are too busy hunting for friends and relatives of their own, and picking through the rubble of their own homes, to turn their attention to any sort of nationwide rescue effort.

Local aid groups are decimated too. Many organizations — including the United Nations, which has 9,000 peacekeepers here — have suffered damage to their buildings and lost personnel, equipment and supplies. That makes it far harder for the many foreign groups piling into Haiti with lots of enthusiasm to help, but no one to work with.

U.N. staff look as stunned as the Haitians. I spoke to a group of Chilean soldiers who arrived for their tour of duty just a few days before the earthquake struck. “How unlucky was that?” one of them said, sitting on a tractor in front of a mound of rocks he was supposed to move.

Aid is coming into Port-au-Prince airport fast now, but there is no structure to order, transport and distribute it. So many Haitians are still feeling abandoned, and are without the most basic necessities — water, bandages, shelter — as they populate makeshift refugee centers all over the capital.

 ”Of all the places for this to have happened, Haiti is the probably the least able to respond,” said an American rescue worker, who identified himself simply as John and said he was a veteran of disasters around the world.

“I’m a pretty hardened sort of guy, but I haven’t seen much like this. It’s nasty, real ugly.”

QUAKE-HAITI/

Reuters photos by Kena Betancur and Jorge Silva.

For more multimedia coverage, see http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE60B5IZ20100114
For relief efforts, go to http://www.alertnet.org/

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Interested in the earthquake in Haiti and international response? Watch the PBS show Basic Black tonight at 7:30 p.m. for a LIVE panel discussion about the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti, as well as a discussion about the race for the Massachusetts State Senate seat and its national implications. You can watch on channel 2 in Boston, or online at http://www.basicblack.org. Be sure and comment in our chat, which is now live!

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