Monday, September 15, 2008

After Hurricane Ike, Haiti Copes With Aid Delays

GOODWILL DAMON: Actor Matt Damon hands a bag of rice to Haitian singer Wyclef Jean (in blue cap) in a relief operation Saturday in Haiti. Ariana Cubillos/AP

This weekend, Hollywood star Matt Damon and Haitian-born singer Wyclef Jean urged people to help the UN raise more than $100 million for supplies.

By Reed Lindsay
GONAIVES, HAITI - Before hurricane Ike hit, Haitians were already suffering from skyrocketing food prices that sparked nationwide protests and forced out the prime minister in April.

Now, nearly two weeks after a muddy deluge killed more than 100 and left tens of thousands homeless in this city, hunger is rampant as humanitarian aid is delayed and prices soar even higher.

"The water took everything we had," says Rosemarie Pierre, who has been living on the second floor of Gonaives's cathedral with her son and four grandchildren since losing her home to tropical storm Hanna. "Some neighbors gave us food. But it's not enough."

Four years ago, tropical storm Jeanne killed some 3,000 people in this city and the surrounding area. The death toll from Hanna has not been as high, but Gonaives residents and aid workers say that in many ways the devastation has been worse.

And Hanna was followed by Ike, flooding Gonaives for the second time in a week and destroying a bridge that represented the last land route into the city.

"It has been a nightmare getting food to Gonaives," says Raphael Chuinard, an official for the United Nation's World Food Program, who is overseeing the emergency food distribution.

But the biggest stumbling block to delivering aid, according to Rene Wagemans, who is coordinating the UN's relief efforts, has been avoiding violence. "We feel tension rising," says Ms. Wagemans. "The last thing we want are riots during the distribution."

Aid hand-outs had been limited to bottled water and high-energy biscuits, but on Thursday, the UN began delivering rice, beans, and oil to the city's shelters aimed at feeding people for two weeks.

"The situation is improving," says Mr. Chuinard. "The social tension has really gone down and the streets are getting back to normal."

This weekend, Hollywood star Matt Damon arrived with Haitian-born singer Wyclef Jean to hand out rice, beans, and cooking oil in Cabaret, a town that saw 60 people die in flash floods. In 2005, Mr. Jean established the Yéle Haiti foundation, providing aid, arts and sports programs, and scholarships for thousands of schoolchildren. Both celebrities urged people to help the UN raise more than $100 million needed for food and supplies.

"We've only seen the beginning of this crisis," says Max Cosci, of Doctors Without Borders, which is running one of four small health centers in Gonaives.

Mr. Cosci says most of those wounded during the impact of the flooding have been treated, but he is now beginning to see patients with other illnesses.

The flow of aid should ease as floodwaters in Gonaives descend and the road from Port-au-Prince is reopened, which could happen in the coming days. But greater challenges loom.

"Long-term solutions are very complicated," says Yolene Surena, who heads the government's relief efforts in Gonaives. She proposes launching major infrastructure projects, strictly enforcing building codes, and even building a "new city" on higher ground.

But these are lofty plans for a cash-strapped government and international donors perpetually preoccupied with insecurity and political tumult in Port-au-Prince.

Catastrophic flooding in recent years has been a result of widespread deforestation, as hills have been left bare by poor farmers whose only source of income is making charcoal. But investing in small-scale agriculture to dissuade peasants from cutting down trees has long been at the bottom of the list of priorities for the government and its foreign backers.

In the wake of the uprising against rising food prices in April, President René Préval vowed to boost national production, and donors announced new plans to invest in the agricultural sector, especially in the fertile rice-growing region of the Artibonite, of which Gonaives is the capital.

But these projects will likely be set back, as the recent string of storms have destroyed crops throughout the country and caused flooding of the Artibonite's rice fields.

As often happens in Haiti, tackling the root of the problem has taken a back seat to facing the latest crisis.

Source: CsMonitor.Com

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