Lack of crowd control hampers food and water delivery to Haitian quake victims

This gallery collects all of our photos of the crisis in Haiti, starting with the most recent images and going back to the first photos that emerged after an earthquake hit the impoverished nation Jan. 12.
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

TABARRE, HAITI -- For more than 500 people who have banded together in solace and solidarity in a field here, there is no food. At the beginning of the week, a delegation went to the mayor's office, then to the United Nations and back to the mayor.

"We've gotten nothing yet," schoolteacher Guerlouse Jean-Marie said Thursday as she sat in the shade, waiting. "They haven't come here at all."

While food deliveries are underway to Haiti's stricken population, the enormity of the unmet need is as clear as the desolation on the faces in this field, a 10-minute drive from the U.N. logistics base and the main Port-au-Prince airport, where dozens of cargo-laden flights land each day.

The U.N. World Food Program sharply reduced its deliveries this week after failing to obtain enough U.N. peacekeepers or U.S. soldiers to keep anxious crowds in order. After staging as many as 20 deliveries in a day last weekend, the agency has cut that number to a maximum of five.

The limit was set by the U.N. peacekeeping command, which concluded that its weary and overstretched troops could handle no more than that, according to WFP spokesman David Orr. With an estimated 2 million people in serious need after the Jan. 12 earthquake, U.N. officials say they have been pressing U.S. military leaders to assign more soldiers to food missions.

Talks with U.S. logistics officers began Thursday, said the agency's regional director, Pedro Medrano. Spokesmen for the U.S. military command in Haiti declined requests to provide an officer to discuss efforts or plans. Speaking at the Pentagon on Thursday, Gen. Douglas Fraser, the head of U.S. Southern Command, said deliveries have not been meeting demand.

The World Food Program calculates that it has reached about 500,000 Haitians, including about 300,000 in the capital, where hundreds of thousands of people are living without shelter, water or power.

Supplies of vegetables and dried goods are slowly arriving in local markets from the provinces and the neighboring Dominican Republic. But quantities are limited and, for many impoverished Haitians who lost their savings, unaffordable.

Scott P. Lewis, who brought a team of volunteers from West Palm Beach, Fla., oversaw a delivery of 60 tons of dried food and cooking oil near the presidential palace. Thousands of people lined up and, as the supplies diminished, panicked and rushed the bags, tearing them open in a frenzy. Peacekeepers used tear gas.

"That's human suffering. It's desperation, and it's understandable," said Lewis, president of the Eagles Wings Foundation, a small nonprofit organization. He said the U.S. military, which has 4,400 soldiers on the ground in Haiti, must become more involved.

Perhaps the most successful food operation in the capital took place this week on a once exclusive golf course in the hills east of the crippled downtown. Catholic Relief Services teamed with soldiers from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division to distribute more than 200 tons of food, principally lentils and bulgar, to about 6,500 families.

CRS spent three days doing a population of those who migrated to the course after the earthquake, said Donal Reilly, deputy director of the organization's emergency response team. Each family was given a color-coded card. Haitian workers filled sacks, and U.S. soldiers hustled 100-pound bags down the hill to people organized into patient lines.

"With the American soldiers here, it's easy. We're looking at further cooperation with them," Reilly said. "It's a good lesson learned from what needs to happen."

Miles away, in the steamy flatland near the sea, the Rev. Gerard Forges has been trying for days to get the attention of Haitian and international authorities. He wants food and water for members of his Pentacostal congregation in Tabarre, who can hear the relief planes landing nearby.

When he tried Tabarre city hall, he was told that town officials were themselves coming up empty. Then, with the help of a Haitian American supporter from Georgia, on Monday he made his way inside the humming U.N. logistics center next to the airport, to a World Food Program officer.

That night, where hundreds gathered in the dark to sleep in safety and worship beneath on scores of pews salvaged from Forges's church, congregants told of their losses to the earthquake, their thirst and their hunger.

"The last time I had a real meal was before the earthquake," Myrlone Demi-Jour said, as she sat with her husband and 8-year-old daughter, Melissa. The previous two days, they had only rice and water, with a glass of juice for Melissa.

A kindly man brought rice and tinned salmon to an encampment across the street that day, but the quantities were small and people began to fight and throw rocks. Bags tore and rice spilled onto the ground. The Demi-Jours kept their distance.

On Thursday afternoon, hundreds of people were packed into every pew and squeezed into the precious cool of two shade trees. Two men in a blue church vehicle arrived with several sacks filled with water bags.

The water did not last in such a large crowd. Forges was elsewhere, still asking for help. Barnard Rabb, a pastor, drove the dusty SUV. He had come from city hall, where there was no food.

"We've got nothing," Rabb said, studying his flock. "They are waiting."

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.

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