(This story was originally published November 2, 2008.)
GONAIVES, Haiti -- Colossal clouds of dust and despair stretch for miles along a post-apocalyptic scene of human misery where schools, streets, homes and hospitals remain buried under heaps of dry earth.
Nearly two months after back-to-back storms ravaged their forgotten city, the people of Gonaives subsist in mud-caked ruins, sleeping on rooftops, in classrooms, and in shacks fashioned from tattered bedsheets and rusted tin.
After what is unequivocally one of the worst natural disasters to hit this deeply impoverished country in 100 years, international aid for recovery has stopped at slightly more than a third of the $106 million the United Nations asked for. And the recovery is mired in a lack of leadership, infighting by political and relief organizations and profiteering.
"We Haitians are living like animals, and the government doesn't care, " said Luca Junior Limose, 47, who is among 200 Haitians living in a crowded wing of the abandoned Chachou hotel.
His bathing facility: a swimming pool with stale brown water and smelly muck.
A city of 300,000 with a history of inciting revolt, Gonaives has become the focal point of the fight to help Haiti dig itself out of devastation caused by a string of storms that left more than $1 billion in damage, 793 people dead, and more than 100,000 homes destroyed or damaged.
Since September, the United Nations' World Food Program has distributed more than 5,000 tons of food to 520,000 storm victims, half of them in Gonaives, Haiti's third largest city, built below sea level northwest or Port-au-Prince.
But the relief and cleanup have been scattershot, with many Haitians wondering how long they can linger in fetid conditions.
Haitian President René Préval on Friday called a meeting with government ministers and representatives of about 20 groups involved in the recovery effort. After the meeting, the government designated vacant land to build a proper shelter, and decided to name a Gonaives recovery and relief czar soon for the enormous undertaking.
'STILL IN A MESS'
"Normally, if you have an emergency, you have some plans, " said Vikki Stienen, Gonaives project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, an international medical relief organization. "You have some emergency preparedness plans. . . . There are none. The city's still in a mess. You just have to see it for yourself to believe it."
While residents suffer, opportunists take advantage of the misery by hijacking the aid. Last week, Haitian officials arrested several city employees after police found a warehouse stashed with stolen food donated by Venezuela. Among those arrested: the city employee tasked with helping Venezuela coordinate distribution of the aid, officials said.
Indeed, the shipments of aid have sparked an underground economy. The sale of relief supplies is common throughout the city.
One reason for the chaotic aid distribution: After years of allowing the international community to take the lead in rebuilding Haiti, Gonaives Mayor Stephen "Topa" Moise and other local authorities have insisted on playing a lead role. But the lack of expertise and skilled manpower, and ongoing political conflicts, have thwarted efforts to restore even the lowest level of order to residents' lives. So have Haitian pride and nationalism.
"We don't have the resources, but that doesn't mean we should just allow Country I and Country Z to do what they want for us, " Moise said. "The government also has to make an effort."