March 31, 2010 / 6:01 PM / 10 years ago

As donors meet, desperate Haitians chase daily needs

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - A world away from Haiti, foreign donors and Haitian leaders were considering in New York an ambitious blueprint for the long-term reconstruction of the earthquake-shattered Caribbean country.

But in the crowded, squalid quake survivors’ camps of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, thousands clamored on Wednesday for basic necessities that many in the world take for granted: shelter, food, water, medical care, electricity and toilets.

The United Nations-organized donors conference in New York was set to pledge several billion dollars to Haiti, which was already prostrated by poverty and the least developed state in the Western Hemisphere even before the January 12 quake that reduced to rubble much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding


In the steamy, fragile and teeming tent cities that house hundreds of thousands of homeless quake victims in and around Port-au-Prince, most people knew nothing of the high-level diplomatic meeting on Haiti far away to the north.

Their minds were preoccupied with obtaining what they needed to get by day to day — a focus given added urgency by overnight rains that soaked the tents and homemade shelters and turned the normally dusty pathways between them to mud.

“We need water, food, toilets, healthcare, light and tents — shelter,” said Silverin Nono, elected leader of a survivors camp that has mushroomed on a barren, refuse-strewn hillside called Bas-Canaan north of Port-au-Prince.

Life’s immediate basic needs were also on the minds of hundreds of jostling, chattering men and women who lined up for a handout of blankets in a central Port-au-Prince square on Wednesday, an operation supervised by American soldiers.

“It rained and we got wet,” said Marie-Therese Jasme as she waited anxiously in line to receive the sack of blankets.

With people desperate not to miss out, occasional scuffles and fights broke out, which the U.S. troops moved quickly to break up. They pulled out of the line and pushed away those who did not have the required coupons to receive the handout, which was being carried out by the Catholic Relief Services.

Although widespread food, water and aid handouts have to some extent stabilized the precarious situation in the multiple survivors’ camps, most of their occupants say they need more and fret also about their livelihood tomorrow.

“We need help, we need work, I’m a secretary, but there are no jobs. The schools aren’t opening,” said one middle-aged woman, accompanied by her son, as she watched the blanket handout empty-handed in frustration because she had no coupon.


Aid workers have warned that unless more adequate and secure shelter is provided quickly to the more than 1 million left homeless by the January 12 quake, Haiti could face another humanitarian disaster from the frequent floods and landslides that strike the country during the imminent rainy season.

Several participants at the New York conference urged donors not to ignore Haiti’s immediate humanitarian needs.

A campaign by the United Nations to raise $1.4 billion in humanitarian aid is still 52 percent short of its goal. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the appeal has “stagnated.”

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, a U.N. special envoy for Haiti, also called in New York for rapid improvements in living conditions for the quake survivors before the imminent rains, and the coming hurricane season starting June 1.

“Until the Haitians can live, instead of day to day, month to month, it’s going to be very difficult for us to implement the long-term plans which (Haiti’s) president, the prime minister and the government have given us,” Clinton said.

“Some of the tented encampments are exposed to very heavy winds and they will blow down,” he said. “We still don’t have adequate sanitation for the concentrated living that we have there and this is very dangerous for the children,” he added.

Both Clinton, former U.S. President George W. Bush, and some other world leaders have visited Haiti since the quake, but many Haitians asked why current U.S. President Barack Obama had not yet gone to the impoverished Caribbean country.

Carmen Beauvoir, 40, said she was grateful for Obama’s quick response to the disaster, in which he dispatched thousands of U.S. troops and aid workers to spearhead a huge international relief effort.

But she added: “We need to see him here in person ... It is just like coming to his back yard”.

Haitians, descendants of former black slaves who overthrew French colonial rule to create the world’s first independent black republic in 1804, say they feel a special affinity and affection for the first black president of the United States.

“We are just a couple of hours away,” Beauvoir said.

Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman.

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