UN ‘strains every nerve’ to aid Haiti victims, but long way to go – top official

WFP operations in Léogâne, a town west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

20 January 2010 – The United Nations is “straining every nerve” to ramp up its aid to the countless victims of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, from medical care, food and water supplies to security and logistics, but there is still a very long way to go, the world body’s humanitarian chief said today, eight days after the disaster struck.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told a news briefing in New York he did not yet have a clear picture of extra damage that might have been caused today by the strongest aftershock yet since the quake ravaged Port-au-Prince on 12 January, killing scores – maybe hundreds – of thousands of people, wounding many more, and affecting some 3 million.

“We’re straining every nerve again to make sure that there are the right number of doctors, the right amount of drugs and equipment and field hospitals,” he stressed, voicing deep concern at the very large number of injured who may be infected or waiting for urgent surgical treatment. “We’re hoping that we’ll be able to turn a corner there very soon,” he added, noting that there were already seven field hospitals and others on the way as well as a United States hospital ship.

The UN is stepping up significantly its efforts to reach cities outside Port-au-Prince, particularly Jacmel, as well as places like Léogâne that were also very badly damaged, and may have been hit further by today’s aftershock. “Search and rescue teams are there in most cases and aid is being delivered in increasing quantities but still very limited compared to the need,” he said.

Overall, the search and rescue operation is continuing, “people are still being pulled out from the rubble, extraordinarily, and we’ll continue with that as long as there’s any hope of finding people alive,” Mr. Holmes added. So far, 121 people have been saved, not including “many, many more” pulled out by the Haitians themselves, “and that, I think is a very significant success.”

Water is now available but there is still the problem of getting it from main treatment plant, and millions are expected to need food over the next six months. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has reached about a quarter of a million people with rations for several days and various Red Cross agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are getting to 250,000 more.

This is “again still very far short of what’s needed, we’re well aware of that. We think there are 3 million people affected; 2 million of those in our judgment are going to need food for six months, so you’ve obviously got a long way to go, but that effort is being ramped up with increasing speed and scale, and I hope we’ll start to meet the need,” Mr. Holmes said.

WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran is on her way to Haiti for a two-day visit to assess the situation, visit those affected and meet with Government and relief agency officials.

The airport, which is being run by the United States, is working increasingly well in terms of number of flights, both military and humanitarian, and the UN is working with the US to make sure the priorities are set in the best possible way, Mr. Holmes said. “In logistics terms we’re beginning to turn a corner, in delivery terms, but we recognize there’s still a huge way to go before we can make that work as well as we want to,” he stressed.

Meanwhile, one of the constraints is the need for military security escorts for aid convoys and distribution centres, which the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is making its top priority. Mr. Holmes said he hoped US Marines would be able to take over more of this responsibility in the next few days. There are also increasing numbers of Haitian police on the streets as they recover from the grievous blows they themselves suffered in the quake.


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