Haiti earthquake: Angry crowds bemoan lack of government response

Haiti's President René Préval Preval and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will issue a joint communiqué on Sunday laying out plans for delivering emergency aid, but many Haitians are denouncing the lack of government response to the crisis.

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
A hand made banner made of a bed sheet and paint declares a need for help in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 16, 2009. Four days after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the region, water, food and other necessities are in short supply.

The streets of Port-au-Prince are teeming with people. Entire swaths of the city are full of residents, carrying empty water containers, watching neighbors dig out their relatives still buried in rubble, or camping out in plazas and sidewalks and city squares.

One thing that is sorely missing on the scene: the Haitian government.

International firefighters and paramedics have cordoned off recovery sights and are busily trying to rescue anyone who still might be alive. The United Nations forces guard the sites, trying to keep order amid the sometimes frantic desire among family members outside anxious for news. International relief organizations have started to land at the airport, and are slowly setting up operations.

But many Haitians say that in their loss and pain, their government has offered little solace.

“It is either international groups, or personal efforts – individuals looking for their family members or depending on one another,” says Enouk Anglade, a Haitian waiting for news of her cousin buried in the rubble of a building. “In Haiti we do not know how to deal with disasters.”

On Saturday, Haiti's President Réne Préval met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for an hour in an air-conditioned tent at the Port-au Prince airport, discussing how to coordinate the relief effort. The two will issue a joint communiqué on Sunday laying out plans for delivering emergency aid and for longer term cooperation in rebuilding the country’s communications, electricity, and transportation infrastructure.

But in the streets, Haitian government aid efforts are barely visible. On Saturday, government water trucks began patrolling the streets, mobbed whenever they were
stopped by people desperate for water. And police officers have emerged on the streets, where looting has broken out and where, with so little infrastructure in place, Haitians are bathing in stagnant fountains.

“It is not an easy situation,” says Ralph Stanley Jean-Brice, the head of the Haitian National Police in the zone that covers Port-au-Prince.

He says his force is down by about half, both because of casualties and because officers are attending their own ruined homes and deaths in their families.

At the central gardens, where thousands are sleeping, residents have a view of the cumbled national palace – a powerful symbol of the government's lack of muscle right now.

The situation has angered some Haitians.

“The government has given us nothing, no medical services or water,” says Martine Mateus, tending to his ailing sister who has been sleeping on the ground for days.

In the middle of Port-au-Prince, hanging on a white sheet, someone wrote: “We need aid for the victims. We need food and water.” Another wrote on wood outside a damaged structure: “Welcome the US Marines. Dead bodies inside.”

Even before the earthquake struck last Tuesday evening, Haiti faced a slew of problems. The poorest nation in the western hemisphere, more than half the population lives on less than a $1 a day and almost as many don't have sustainable access to potable water.

The damage was so complete, too, that just as the police force has been depleted, so too have other service providers.

At the general hospital, only one nurse, Georgette Sergilles, who says she is in training, was on duty in a make-shift clinic in a field where dozens of patients laid, many moaning in pain. She says she cannot even tend to their bathroom needs. “I am all alone,” she says.

Nearby, the side of a street has turned into a temporary morgue, dead bodies piled on the ground.

“They have nothing here, no infrastructure, no support,” says Francisco Morales, a Spanish firefighter working at the recovery scene of a hotel. “They are too poor.”

But many say the earthquake has been made more tragic by government unpreparedness.

“Geologists knew we were sitting on top of a fault, and what did the government do? Nothing,” says Frednel Isma, a consultant in Port-au-Prince who says that he tried to rally friends and relatives to distribute water in the first two days when no relief efforts were anywhere to be seen.

“You are on your own here,” says Ronald, a car salesman who does not want to give his last name but is critical of the current government. “Every year there is a disaster in Haiti, and we have no rescue teams or plan.”

Others were more forgiving.

“They are not doing anything,” says resident Manuel Michel, standing in line for water. “But they cannot afford to help.”

In the meantime, as international teams take charge of recovery efforts, relief aid has been slow to be distributed, and a sense of desperation has begun to mark the mood, especially in the most overcrowded settlements.

Nine trucks from the Red Cross in the neighboring Dominican Republic arrived Saturday full of cans of tuna, tents, and antibiotics, have yet to hand it out.

They say just handing it out without a strategy for how to contain expected mob violence would be too dangerous for the staff.

 Says volunteer Antoinne Guerby: “We are figuring out a plan.”

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