Mud and misery rule storm-ravaged city

(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.


"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."

But there is no security presence in shelters, few police are on the streets, and competing aid groups don't seem to have a clear picture of what others are doing.

Some residents think Moise is among those trying to profit from the city's misery. Moise has strongly denied that, telling The Miami Herald, for instance, that he has no idea how the Venezuelan rice, beans, milk, sugar and ready-to-eat meals reached local markets in bulk.

On a recent morning, as relief SUVs bearing French and English acronyms plowed through slimy streets, hundreds of young men and women shoveled debris into green wheelbarrows to be trucked out of the city. Watching the ragtag convoy of government trucks from their mud-packed yards, many Haitians wondered how long it would be before normal life resumes.

Haiti was already in a miserable state -- the result of rising global food prices that triggered deadly riots -- when Tropical Storm Hanna flooded Gonaives and bathed it in mud, followed days later by Hurricane Ike.

"We the people of Gonaives, we have a lot of problems, " Leonie Joseph said from the cramped rooftop of a wholesale food store she used to run with her sister Marleine. That rooftoop is now the family's new home.

The yard remains submerged in floodwaters, and the family's few possessions are covered with soiled bedsheets. Eight people, including a 3-month-old and a 3-year-old, live on the roof.

At the city's southern limits where a new lake has formed, 512 people live in a tent city. The tents are better than a roof, but it's unclear how long the tent city will remain.


Government officials and humanitarian experts say one reason that relief and cleanup efforts seem uncoordinated and slow is that the initial focus was on saving lives.

Today, weeks after Hanna practically destroyed this seaside city, aid workers are still experimenting with how best to distribute food. And the government is still working on a plan to relocate tens of thousands of homeless people.

"It could be better, but everything is complicated here, " Joël Boutroue, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Haiti, said of the recovery. "But we are not sitting on our hands saying, 'We cannot do anything.' We are trying to do what we can."

Boutroue and Haitian Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aimé had both asked that the government name a relief and recovery czar with executive-like powers to speed things up.

There are entire city blocks that need to be condemned, rivers and canals to be dredged and schools to be opened. The U.N. has asked local authorities to open 166 schools. But with as many as 23,000 homeless residents still living in 37 schools, local officials have resisted resuming classes.

Bien-Aimé said the conflict goes beyond the spat between the U.N. and competing local officials. It also spills over to international aid agencies and governments that want to set the conditions for their assistance.

They also have conflicting agendas. Take the warehouse where 900 residents currently live. They were bused to the facility by the mayor, who did not have the owner's permission to temporarily house anyone. The U.N.'s World Food Program would like to stockpile food in the depot, but another U.N. agency is working to keep the people in the shelter.

U.N. rules prohibit mixing storage with temporary shelter.

That shelter and others like it are patrolled not by police officers or government social workers, but by self-appointed bands of young men.

Some fear that women and children are being left vulnerable.

"Since we came here to this shelter, we don't know if the Haitian government exists, " said Elvariest Paulveret, 51, standing in the dusty yard of the warehouse.

"We have almost two months that we have been sleeping on cement, and since then we have yet to come across a representative of the government to tell us anything, " he said. "We used to sleep on beds, but the floodwaters washed away our beds and everything else we owned."

After fights broke out at the depot a few weeks into the food handout, the World Food Program and a local government disaster committee halted distributions.


"It hurt me to do it, but the shelters are not managed at all, " said Alix Loriston, the WFP coordinator in Gonaives. "The conditions for safety, conditions for humanitarian assistance for a human being, are not there."

For weeks, U.N. officials have asked Moise to relocate thousands of displaced Haitians. But neither the mayor nor anyone else in the government complied until Friday, when the president personally got involved.

"We need better organized shelters in another area where we can have better controls, including the protection of women, " said Boutroue, the U.N. official.

With donor response lagging, government officials have turned to their own measly coffers to begin the process of rebuilding. Using $200 million saved from discounted oil purchases from Venezuela, the Haitian government bought garbage trucks and bulldozers to assist in the cleanup and set aside $17 million to be split among 142 counties.

Bien-Aimé said the government is seeking tents to provide temporary housing. But the country needs permanent housing.


To put money in people's pockets, the government has joined the U.N. and the U.S. Agency for International Development in a job program, paying locals to shovel mud. Wearing gray and orange T-shirts, the street cleaners receive $3.75 a day.

While the jobs will help a few people, many others remain unemployed with no means to earn an income -- except through their food rations. Rice, beans, powdered milk and sugar have emerged as items that people can buy and sell. Some aid workers say that even though they don't condone such selling, they understand it. Food and water are not enough for survival.

Some local officials are less sympathetic. They accuse recipients of lying to receive more than their share.

"The people seem to think that in the aftermath of a natural disaster, the aid is indefinite and they should be receiving food and more food, " said Marc-Elie St. Hillien, a government appointee involved in the recovery. "If they spend a week or two without receiving any food, it's as if they have never received any at all."

The World Food Program concedes that some people may have fallen through the cracks. Last week, it increased the number of distribution sites in the city and provided new ration cards for cereal, beans and oil. The change was prompted by complaints that lines were too long, and that women were being beaten and robbed of their rations.

"We have to find a good solution where the most vulnerable can get food, " said Loriston, the World Food Program coordinator.