Aid agencies, hit hard by earthquake, struggle to cope in Haiti
Thursday, January 21, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- As buildings crashed to the ground around her after Haiti's earthquake, Yolette Etienne reacted as any longtime relief worker would.
"I had the idea to say to people: 'Don't panic. We are Oxfam. We help people,' " the group's Haiti director said.
But this time, it was Oxfam that needed help. One of its top officials was pinned beneath the rubble in the agency's compound, fatally injured. Cellphones were dead. Roads were blocked. And when Etienne made it home, she found her elderly mother crushed under a collapsed wall.
The United Nations and aid groups are trying to run a relief operation for 3 million people while coping with missing staff and family members, damaged warehouses and files buried in shattered buildings. Workers are battling the logistical complications through a fog of grief.
The United Nations was particularly hard hit. Its two top officials in Haiti died in the collapse of the six-story Christopher Hotel, which the agency had rented to use as its local headquarters.
"They were the two key decision-makers on so many things," David Wimhurst, chief of communications for the U.N. peacekeeping force here, said of the two men. "The decision-making process was clearly damaged."
According to U.N. figures, 49 people working in the world body's peacekeeping operation have died, and 312 -- many of them Haitians -- are still unaccounted for.
Despite their losses, aid groups are working from dawn to late at night to expand the relief effort. Officials hold meetings sitting on the grass at a U.N. logistics camp near the city airport.
Arriving aid workers and those whose homes are uninhabitable sleep in cars, on cots outdoors or on the floors of U.N. trailers-turned-offices.
"Come to the press office," said Alejandro Lopez-Chicheri, a spokesman for the World Food Program, gesturing toward his cot on a grassy spot outside a trailer at the logistics camp. A pair of dirty socks sat atop the sleeping bag -- "a trick so nobody sits there," he grinned.
Technicians have set up banks of satellite connections for aid workers' laptops, and hundreds of relief reinforcements are arriving. The United Nations quickly dispatched acting replacements for its top official and for the head of the U.N. police force, who also was killed.
Etienne, 50, a woman with lively dark eyes and thick black braids wrapped around her head, was embracing a newly arrived colleague just before sunset Jan. 12 when the building began to lurch. She cried out to employees in the Oxfam compound to stay away from the walls. After the quake subsided, she watched her colleagues pull the agency's gravely injured finance director from the rubble of a partially collapsed building.