Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haiti -- Where Prayer Replaces Preparation

150,000 Haiti quake victims buried, gov't says

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The truckers filling Haiti's mass graves with bodies reported ever higher numbers: More than 150,000 quake victims have been buried by the government, an official said Sunday.

That doesn't count those still under the debris, carried off by relatives or killed in the outlying quake zone.

"Nobody knows how many bodies are buried in the rubble — 200,000? 300,000? Who knows the overall death toll?" said the official, Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue.

The hapless government has no basis for determining the number of people killed by the earthquake. Worse, the government seems to lack the understanding of how Haiti's own lack of safety standards contribued to the massive death toll.

When an earthquake of slightly higher magnitude hit northern California in 1989 -- postponing the World Series -- less than 70 people were killed. Wny? American building codes. The building codes mandated safety standards that made the difference.

Dealing with the living, meanwhile, a global army of aid workers was getting more food into people's hands, but acknowledged falling short. "We wish we could do more, quicker," said U.N. World Food Program chief Josette Sheeran, visiting Port-au-Prince.

In the Cite Soleil slum, U.S. soldiers and Brazilian U.N. peacekeeping troops distributed food. Lunie Marcelin, 57, said the handouts will help her and six grown children "but it is not enough. We need more."

Where is the help promised by the long list of grandstanding nations? Only a handful have actually delivered.

International experts searched for sites to erect tent cities for quake refugees on the capital's outskirts, but such short-term solutions were still weeks away, said the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental agency.

"We also need tents. There is a shortage of tents," said Vincent Houver, the Geneva-based agency's chief of mission in Haiti. Their Port-au-Prince warehouse has 10,000 family-size tents, but some 100,000 are needed, he said. The organization has appealed for $30 million for that and other needs, and has received two-thirds of that so far.

Haiti is about to become the tent capital of the world. Given its well demonstrated inability to develop housing, Haiti will become a nation with a permanent set of tent-dwellers. Undoubtedly people moving into tents will remain in them until they are nothing but tatters.

One who wouldn't die in Port-au-Prince was Wismond Exantus, who was extricated from the rubble Saturday. He spoke with the AP from his cot in a French field hospital on Sunday, saying the first thing he wanted to do was find a church to give thanks.

He spent the 11 days buried in the ruins of a hotel grocery store praying, reciting psalms and sleeping, he said. "I wasn't afraid because I knew they were searching and would come for me," he said.

It seems Haitians believe prayer is behind rescue missions conducted by humans. It would add to Wismond Exantus's story if we knew who had rescued him.

With such rescues now increasingly unlikely, Haiti's government has declared an end to search operations for the living, shifting the focus more than ever to caring for the thousands surviving in squalid, makeshift camps.

The World Food Program had delivered about 2 million meals to the needy on Friday, up from 1.2 million on Thursday, Sheeran said. But she acknowledged that much more was needed.

"This is the most complex operation WFP has ever launched," she said. "Food distribution is very difficult," said Dr. Henry Ariel of the Haitian Health Ministry. "The food doesn't reach up to now everyone."

The scene Sunday at Cite Soleil, the capital's largest and most notorious slum, showed the need.

Thousands of men, women and children lined up and waited peacefully for their turn as the American and Brazilian troops handed out aid — the Americans gave ready-to-eat meals, high-energy biscuits and bottled water, the Brazilians passed out small bags holding uncooked beans, salt, sugar and sardines, as well as water.

Americans and Brazilians to the rescue. Any other nations heard from?

The need for medical care, especially surgery, postoperative care and drugs, still overwhelmed the help available, aid agencies reported. In the isolated southern port city of Jacmel alone, about 100 patients needed surgery as of Friday, the U.N. reported. Medical personnel were there, but not the necessary surgery supplies.

In Port-au-Prince, meanwhile, the aid group Doctors Without Borders said its inflatable hospital — six large inflatable tents flown in from France — was preparing for its first operations.

At the Choscal hospital in Cite Soleil, the operating room has been busy with obstetric cases and some machete and gunshot wounds, Doctors Without Borders said, as looting and violence sputtered on among the ruins. The numbers of young men scavenging for goods seemed lower, however, since most shops were already entirely cleaned out.

Obstetric cases? Babies? Machete and gunshot wounds? None a result of the earthquake. More evidence of a country in a state of anarchy. Is there any chance Haiti will recover from this catastrophe? Yes, -- IF -- the US and/or the UN takes control of the country and forces the changes needed to create a nation with a rising standard of living. But it will take FORCE. Not hand-holding or sensitivity. If prosperity is to arrive, then Haiti's traditions have to go. A new national mindset has to arrive. Otherwise, Haitians will live in misery until the next catastrophe makes life even worse.

The world's nations have pledged some $1 billion in emergency aid to Haiti. Organizers of Friday night's "Hope for Haiti Now" international telethon reported the event raised $57 million, with more pledges from ordinary people still coming in.

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