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U.N. relief effort thwarted; Paul Farmer, an old Haitian hand, talks about the challenges

January 14, 2010 |  6:18 pm
Doctor A UNICEF cargo plane carrying medical kits, blankets and tents desperately needed by quake-devastated Haitians attempted to land in Port-au-Prince today, but was unable to do so for unknown reasons and returned to Panama where UNICEF has been gathering emergency supplies.

It was symbolic of a frustrating day as the United Nations and its international partners geared up relief efforts after Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon gave the order to release $10 million from its central emergency fund. U.N. plans were hampered by Haiti’s fractured infrastructure and the death of dozens of its own staff members working in Port-au-Prince.

“It’s really a logistics nightmare,” said Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard medical professor and U.N. deputy special envoy to Haiti. “Implementation is the hardest part: getting the stuff to the people who really need it.”

Farmer, who has worked in Haiti for 27 years, said the capital's commercial port is “basically shut down,” thwarting efforts to bring in supplies by sea. Air traffic is backed up, with planes jockeying to land in a minimally functioning airport.

U.N. officials, including former President Bill Clinton, now the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, gathered in New York today to make strategic decisions on international rescue and relief efforts. U.N. officials are trying to coordinate with Haitian counterparts as to what should land first from the outpouring of choices: medical supplies from the United States, or search and rescue teams with specially trained rescue dogs from Germany.

For UNICEF, its growing accumulation of emergency supplies — tents, tarpaulins, blankets, medical kits, water purification tablets and rehydration salts — remained in Panana, where they were brought in by boat. A spokeswoman said it was unclear why its first cargo plane couldn’t land, and circled around before returning to Panama.
 
The U.N. World Food Program began to distribute food rations, starting with 3,000 people in Jacmel, south of the capital, and 2,400 homeless in Port-au-Prince. It was a trickle of what the agency anticipates will be a flood of foodstuffs to sustain as many as 2 million people for an initial six-month period.

The United Nations Population Fund is gathering medicine and health kits to help pregnant women safely deliver babies as Haitian medical facilities remain in shambles.

Farmer,  the co-founder of the nonprofit Partners in Health and subject of the book "Mountains Beyond Mountains,” has long worked in Haiti helping treat infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS. 

He’s familiar with the breakdown in the tenuous and fragile supply lines. All too often, it’s a problem with “the last mile.” But now, supplies have limited options to reach the island nation.

 “We need to fix the port and open up other land bridges and air spaces where planes and helicopters can land,” Farmer said.

The U.N. response has been further hampered by its own losses. Although there’s no official body count, U.N. officials said at least 30 of their colleagues in Haiti are known to be deceased and 100 to 150 remain missing.

“It’s looking really grim,” Farmer said.

Farmer said he finds it particularly painful that Haiti, still rebuilding form a hurricane in 1998, has been slammed by another natural disaster.

“Nobody needs a horrible earthquake,” Farmer said. He called it “a cruel cosmic joke” for Haiti to be struck again. “It’s very upsetting.”

— Ken Weiss

Photo: Paul Farmer examines a girl at the Clinique Bon Sauveur in Cange, Haiti, in this Aug. 2003 image. Credit: Partners in Health

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