Monday, February 1, 2010

U.S. ambassador to Haiti: "There's a great deal of frustration among people ...


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via The Cable by Josh Rogin on 1/27/10

Problems with food distribution and infrastructure, rather than a lack of food supplies, are responsible for rising unrest on the ground in Haiti, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten (the man looking into the camera at right) told The Cable in a phone interview from Port-au-Prince.

"The amount of food we have is sufficient; the issue is getting it out to people in a form they can most easily use and eat and getting it to certain distribution points in sufficient numbers," he said.

Merten confirmed that on Monday Brazilian personnel used tear gas on a crowd of Haitians at a food-distribution point. He said that aid groups were reevaluating the system for how much food to send where.

"People need to understand there's a great deal of frustration among people here," Merten said. "They have to wait longer. Their anger is understandable; it's unfortunate."

He also said he completely shared Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's sentiment that she "deeply resented" criticisms by other countries about the military face of the U.S. relief effort.

"The fact of the matter is the military is here because they have the immediate capability to bring humanitarian aid to the area," Merten elaborated. "They're close, they have the capability, that's why they are here."

"I would suggest that other countries maybe haven't thought that through."

The number of flights landing at the Haiti airport has actually gone down recently, but that's not due to a decrease in demand, according to Merten. There has been a rise in "no shows" -- planes that asked for landing clearance but then for whatever reason missed their appointed slots. U.S. Southern Command is still running the airport, but coordinating flight priorities with USAID and the U.N., he added.

Food distribution is the top mission right now, but in a few days that will shift to increasing the amount of temporary shelter. It's been fortunate for the relief effort that not much rain has fallen since the earthquake, but that luck won't last forever, Merten said.

It will still be several weeks, however, before any plans for large-scale reconstruction will be developed. The U.S. is evacuating orphans by the hundreds and the main challenges there are linking up the orphans with the correct foster families and making sure they really are orphans in the first place.

Overall, the aid mission is hampered most by poor roads and facilities that weren't in good shape in the past, but are now also covered in rubble. It takes an hour to travel just 5 miles, Merten said, and traffic congestion is horrendous.

"The infrastructure is a huge limitation here and there's a lack of appreciation of what the infrastructure challenges here are and were even before the crisis occurred."

There are now 56 confirmed American deaths in Haiti and 36 more reported but not confirmed. One embassy official, four local hires, and three dependents of U.S. government employees have perished since the crisis began.



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