Aid agencies, hit hard by earthquake, struggle to cope in Haiti

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 21, 2010; A15

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.

Etienne's two children were safe at university abroad, and she thought her house had survived. But about 7 p.m., when she finally walked home, she found it a mountain of rubble. In the back yard, she came upon her mother's body.

Etienne grieved for two hours. Then it was time to try to find out what had happened to other family members and friends.

"I said: Tomorrow I have to inform my children, bury my mother -- but find out what happened to my colleagues," she recalled.

Etienne was at work by 8 a.m.

"I know, as an Oxfam worker, an aid worker, I can help people. I've got the resources to help people," she said in Haitian-accented English, fighting back tears.

That doesn't mean it's easy to keep going. In addition to overseeing efforts to bring in sanitation experts, clean water and food, she and her husband have informally adopted the 10-year-old and 19-year-old sons of a friend, a single mother who was killed in the quake.

With no clothes of her own, Etienne sat for an interview in an Oxfam T-shirt she had fished from an office closet and oversize jeans donated by a colleague in another city. Amid the crush of work, she said, she occasionally spaces out.

"I am conscious I am not in possession of all my capabilities," she said. "In a flash, my own situation comes back."

The World Food Program, which in normal times feeds hundreds of thousands of Haitians, was hit so hard that it could not distribute aid the day after the quake. Its phones were down, its facilities crippled, and its Haitian truck drivers were searching for relatives.

Jocelyn Augustin, 61, one of the drivers, was desperately looking for his 24-year-old daughter that day. He and his four other children eventually found her body in the ruins of her university.

A day later, he was back at work.

"Everyone is driving. Everyone is suffering. It is painful, but that is our job," he said.

Aid agencies' equipment was wrecked as chunks of concrete rained down in the quake. Supplies have been delayed because of damage to the capital's port and a bottleneck at its small airport. At one point this week, 40 workers at a U.N. office were sharing two sport-utility vehicles.

Some U.N. officials bristle at criticism of the delays in launching a large-scale relief operation. Lopez-Chicheri said reporters had demanded to know why so many shiny SUVs were parked at the U.N. logistics facility.

The fact that there was an SUV didn't mean there was a driver, he told them: "The person with the keys may be buried under the Christopher."

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