Challenge may be most complex

Many obstacles hamper efforts to provide relief

A Haitian man held his wife and child as they left their destroyed neighborhood in Port-au-Prince yesterday. A Haitian man held his wife and child as they left their destroyed neighborhood in Port-au-Prince yesterday. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
By Ray Rivera
New York Times / January 23, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - The relief effort in Haiti could end up being the most difficult, faith-testing recovery from a modern disaster, perhaps even exceeding that of the 2004 Asian tsunami, according to UN officials and aid groups with experience in large-scale catastrophes.

Haiti, already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, was barely showing signs of recovery from the 2008 hurricane season when the earthquake flattened its capital, Port-au-Prince, crippling the country’s already weakened transportation and service delivery network.

Local aid groups that would normally help guide international efforts were damaged themselves, while the United Nations lost at least 70 staff members, and 146 more remain unaccounted for.

“You’re talking about a country that pre-earthquake had limited resources and capability, and what resources it did have were concentrated in the capital,’’ said Kim Bolduc, who is coordinating the relief effort for the United Nations. “This context helps explain why this emergency is probably the most complex in history, more than the tsunami, more than the Pakistan earthquake’’ of 2005.

The difficulties have confounded aid workers, even those who have dealt with some of world’s worst disasters in recent years. At a first-aid tent where hundreds of people are now living in Jacmel, a coastal city that was among the worst hit, a French doctor threw his hands in the air.

“I am very, very surprised,’’ the doctor, Francois Sarda, a volunteer with Aides Actions Internationales Pompiers, said of the three days it took the aid group to get in and the chaos he found when he finally arrived. The group was forced to fly to the Dominican Republic and take a boat from there. “At least in the tsunami we had some infrastructure,’’ he said.

To help manage the chaos, the United Nations and the United States signed a two-page memorandum of understanding yesterday to formalize their roles and end the tensions that flared earlier in the week. The United Nations had complained about the US military’s handling of flights at the airport here, saying critical deliveries of food from the World Food Program were being unnecessarily delayed.

Under the memorandum, Haiti maintains overall control of the aid and rescue efforts, though the United Nations is in charge of coordinating the work. But the memorandum does not put American soldiers or other personnel under UN command. The Americans remain focused on delivering aid, while the United Nations handles peacekeeping.

Still, the United States is known for throwing its considerable weight around in international aid efforts, so it is unclear whether the agreement will solve the problems.

Doctors Without Borders has complained about the US military’s running of the airport. The group has landed some planes, but has had others diverted, forcing it to truck in supplies from the Dominican Republic, according to Marie-Noelle Rodrigue, deputy director for operations for Doctors Without Borders in Paris. Jason Cone, a spokesman, said much of the confusion involved who was coordinating matters. He said airport access had improved in recent days through direct contact with the Pentagon and the US Agency for International Development.

Major Nathan Miller, with the Air Force’s 23d Special Tactics Squadron, said that the military was not playing favorites, and that military planes arrived during off-peak night hours to make more room for international aid flights.