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Two Weeks On, Most Haitians Still Lack Basics

January 27, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Two weeks into the recovery effort in Haiti, thousands of survivors are still struggling to simply exist. Ray Suarez speaks with Margaret Warner from Haiti about the uneven relief effort.
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GWEN IFILL: A teenaged girl was rescued alive in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, today, 15 days after the earthquake. She had been trapped in the rubble of a house.

And U.N. officials estimated up to one million Haitian children lost their parents in the earthquake. Relief workers warned, many could be abducted and sold as domestic servants. Meanwhile, U.S. and French troops worked to reopen the Port-au-Prince seaport. That would relieve the overload at the clogged airport.

Ray Suarez is in Haiti, where hundreds of thousands are still struggling to simply exist.

Margaret Warner spoke with him earlier today.

MARGARET WARNER: Hi, Ray. It’s good to see you.

We’re two weeks into this crisis. Where do things stand for ordinary Haitians when it comes to the basics of life, let’s say food, for example?

RAY SUAREZ: There is food. There’s a lot of aid flowing in, but a lot of people are living on short rations. It’s not like people are going days without eating. But the food that might normally feed a family of six is instead feeding 12 or 14 people.

You meet a lot of people who are hungry. They will come right up to you on the street and tell you that. So, while there is food aid, there’s food in evidence being sold on the streets, there are markets sort of springing up on corners and at intersections, but it’s not sufficient. And people are not eating in a way that’s optimal.

MARGARET WARNER: We’re hearing reports that the food distribution is somewhat chaotic and many people are being left out. Have you seen that?

RAY SUAREZ: Today, our “NewsHour” crew was near a warehouse that was bringing in aid. And, often, in a situation like this, word moves very quickly by informal bush telegraph. And there was a large crowd waiting to get into an industrial park to try to get work today.

Word spread through the crowd that that warehouse was about to start distributing food, and the crowd, en masse, ran to that place, and jammed the entrance, and tried to mob the trucks. And the police pushed everybody aside, got them to wait in a line. In fact, all they were doing was transporting goods to get them ready for distribution. There wasn’t going to be any distribution.

But the police controlled the crowd by getting them into line as if there was going to be. There’s a lot of waiting on line going on in this country right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that also the case with the money that’s started flowing back into Haitians from their relatives abroad, that is, it’s coming in, but they’re having trouble getting access to it?

RAY SUAREZ: It is a problem because the banking system in the capital is in a shambles. And the businesses that handle those wire transfers, like Western Union, are in many cases not open, or, if they are open, only able to handle a few customers at a time.

So, when you approach these wire transfer places everywhere around Port-au-Prince, if you can find them open, there’s a multihour line stretching out the door, and a crowd that goes way down the block.

There is very little money moving through the economy right now. People can’t get their hands on the money that’s meant for them from their relatives overseas. And because so many people are out of work, there’s no wages being paid. So, it’s like the circulatory system seizing up. There’s just not enough money moving through an economy that’s ready to spring into life.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about shelter, Ray? President Preval issued an international appeal earlier this week for 200,000 family-sized tents. Is that going to be enough?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there’s already complaints from people on the ground that those hundreds of thousands of tents aren’t going to be enough.

And if you accept the figure of some one million people right now out of shelter, either because their homes have been destroyed outright, or because they have sustained enough damage, or because, in the aftershocks, people will not occupy them, yes, that number is short.

But the more disturbing part is that, as you mentioned, more than two weeks into this tragedy, the tents are very little in evidence. You can get antibiotics from halfway around the world, the syringes, gauze pad, sneakers, T-shirts, but the tents that are said to be on their way are just not here.

And what’s happening in that space of time, that delay, is that the temporary shelters that people are cobbling together out of the scraps they can find on the street are becoming semipermanent. They’re getting corrugated tin roofs and wooden walls. And once that happens, you get the worst kind of sanitation, the worst kind of water supply, the worst kind of drainage.

Instead of a formal settlement, a tent camp, a tent city, if you will, being set up, you get something that’s a little bit more handmade and homemade, and much harder to keep healthy, clean, and disease-free. And it’s going to start raining here in a couple of weeks. And those places, those places where people are camping out in the public parks and plazas of this city are going to be cities of misery when that heavy rain begins.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, with the government so overwhelmed, and it seems the U.N. even overwhelmed, how are ordinary Haitians making do?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, people know people who know people.

We were covering a leader of a local business organization trying to get his factory back up and running. And he relies on the roads that head out of Haiti. Because the ports are so damaged, he’s trying to get his goods east into the Dominican Republic to have them shipped out by a Dominican freighter.

What’s happening is that, in contact with the people who run the heavy earth-moving equipment, that earth-moving equipment that is usually used for road repair is right now being used to clear debris. They’re finding a lot of bodies in the debris, so he was asked to locate body bags. He located body bags from a U.S. government source and had to get a flatbed truck to head over to the airport to get to the body bags to give to the road crews.

And he’s going to get some scratch back in the other direction, get some help getting his stuff east out of here on the roads. It’s a network of connections being made by cell phones, people you know who can help you through people they know. That’s what you do when there’s no government around.

MARGARET WARNER: A lot of ingenuity.

Ray Suarez, our man in Haiti, thanks.

RAY SUAREZ: Good to talk to you, Margaret.