UN’s Ban Ki-moon visits storm-ravaged Haiti to ask for more international help

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon brought his message of solidarity to this storm-ravaged country Saturday, telling displaced Haitians he stands with them while also expressing disappointment over the international community’s slow response to Haiti’s latest humanitarian crisis.

“The world economic situation is not favorable and I know that there is some donor fatigue,” said Ban after flying over some of Hurricane Matthew’s hardest hit areas on his way to Les Cayes on Haiti’s southern peninsula.

He called the scene “heartbreaking,” and Matthew’s destruction to homes, crops, livestock and roads in southern Haiti “beyond description.”

“I am disappointed by the response of the international community,” he said, urging major donors to give.

Besides its trail of devastation, the storm that hit Oct. 4 as a Category 4 hurricane killed 546 people in Haiti, according to the government’s official tally, though some unofficial accounts put the death toll at 1,000. Matthew also forced more than 175,000 people into shelters like Philippe Guerrier Lycee, the public school in Les Cayes that Ban visited.

“We are going to mobilize all of our resources to help you,” Ban told some of the shelter’s 500 displaced residents in French to the sound of applause after his words were translated in Creole. “I had a lot of pain when I saw all of this devastation in the area. The entire world stands with you.”

Then Ban, wearing a white guayabera and a blue U.N. cap, turned toward two men in a corner of the shelter. Joanas Cazeau, who uses a wheelchair, had no idea who he was. After learning of Ban’s identity, the man, who had lost his home in the storm and said he has suffered humiliation in the shelter because of his disability, offered a welcome: “Tell him ‘I thank him’ and ‘welcome to Aux Cayes.’”

This is Ban’s third visit to Haiti since the country’s last disaster, the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. But this one also comes almost six years to the day that a Haitian lab tech confirmed that a suspicious illness in Central Haiti’s Artibonite region was cholera. The disease, which causes severe diarrhea and vomiting, can kill in hours if left untreated.

Until August, the head of the powerful world body had refused to acknowledge the U.N. peacekeepers’ role in introducing the epidemic to Haiti 10 months after the country was devastated by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that leveled buildings and left more than 300,000 dead, 1.5 million homeless and an equal number injured.

The U.N. also fought several legal efforts to compensate the families of more than 9,000 people in Haiti who have died after contracting the disease. In August, following a leaked report, Ban’s office finally acknowledged the U.N’s role and said the organization would issue a new cholera response plan.

“I deeply regret the loss of life and suffering. I wish this disaster could have been avoided,” Ban said Saturday at a press conference in Port-au-Prince, where he was joined by interim Haitian President Jocelerme Privert and members of his government. “I deeply regret that the epidemic continues, adding to the misery caused by the hurricane, which has raised the risk of disease transmission.”

Ban reiterated his plans to intensify the fight, saying that the world body will mobilize “to first of all prevent this cholera epidemic and second support the families of the victims.” He plans to establish a trust fund, he said, and called on the international community to “support the Haitian people so they will never suffer from this cholera epidemic.”

On Friday, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson briefed member states on the strategy behind the new plan.

He said the anticipated funding would be $400 million over two years, with the money going to fund two efforts. The first will intensify the drive to eliminate cholera with rapid responses, vaccinations and improving long-term access to clean water and sanitation in Haiti.

The second track will be an assistance package for those most affected by the disease, which has also sickened more than 700,000 since 2010. Ban plans to present the details of the proposal to the U.N. General Assembly before he leaves office in the next few months.

“This is the right thing to do for the Haitian people,” Eliasson said. “This is a collective moral responsibility of the entire organization. In that case, what level of funding will you be willing to provide so that we can deliver on our promise?”

Fears are mounting both in Haiti and within the United Nations that after Matthew, cholera infections will rise because of poor sanitary conditions and a lack of clean drinking water.

Matthew’s trail of destruction also damaged 141 miles of roads out of a total of 186 miles of roads in the most affected areas, according to Privert. The storm destroyed the water and sanitation infrastructure in those regions as well.

Additionally, 75 percent of the cholera treatment facilities in the South and Grand’ Anse departments were destroyed, according to the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization, which this week launched its own appeal to raise $9 million for emergency health operations in Haiti.

“Water supply interruptions will increase diarrheal disease including cholera, and unofficial field sources indicate that some 477 suspected cholera cases were reported in the Southern Peninsula in the last four days,” the groups said in a statement.

Meanwhile, an evaluation of the storm’s damage has revealed that more than half of the health facilities in the southwestern peninsula have been severely damaged. Vaccines and medications also have been lost, including stocks of HIV medication. In order to avoid a public health crisis, U.N. officials, experts and Haitian government officials say, a quick and early response is needed.

Haiti, Privert said, is facing a “humanitarian catastrophe that’s being amplified day by day.” He said people in the most affected areas are experiencing “a lack of water, a lack of nourishment, a lack of medicine and they are exposed to all of the epidemics that the catastrophe can present.”

He thanked Ban for the show of solidarity but added that “thousands of people in the population have lost all hope to live.”

In the past week, UNICEF and organizations like Doctors Without Borders have tried to start tackling the emerging cholera crisis by sending out rapid response teams. The World Health Organization also sent one million cholera vaccines, Eliasson said.

But more is needed.

A $120 million appeal launched on Monday by the United Nations, which could provide food, shelter, water and emergency sanitation over the next three months for 750,000 of the most vulnerable storm victims, has only been funded by 13 percent, Ban spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York on Friday.

He said a water treatment unit has been transported to Jérémie, which is “expected to be fully operational to respond to the needs of up to 16,000 people daily starting Saturday.”

Other assistance rolling into Les Cayes and in Jérémie in police-escorted convoys has been slow to reach those in need. Adding to the misery: On Friday, rain came down in Jérémie, where most people continued to be exposed to the elements, their roofs ripped off by the storm. Few had blue tarps to cover the gaping holes.

The World Food Program, which began food distributions Oct. 8 in Jérémie, reported that around 30,000 people, most of them living in shelters, have received rations. There are nearly 100,000 people in shelters in the Grand’ Anse region where Jérémie is located.

During the cholera briefing, Eliasson was joined by Ban’s special representative in Haiti, Sandra Honoré, and special adviser David Nabarro, who is in charge of raising money and awareness for the U.N.’s new cholera response. Nabarro, who traveled to Les Cayes with Ban and Haitian Prime Minister Enex Jean-Charles, plans to stay in Haiti until Tuesday to further investigate the cholera emergency.

Disaster, Eliasson said, has struck Haitians more than most people on earth.

“The earthquake six years ago, the cholera outbreak and now this monster hurricane,” he said. “We must convey to them that our approach to the hurricane and to cholera includes a commitment to help forge long-term solutions. We must deal with the underlying problems of poverty and fragility that make each successive shock so much more damaging.”