Gasoline shortage hobbles relief effort
Bottleneck in aid delivery fuels growing frustration
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – U.S. forces rushed Tuesday to prepare new airports to increase the flow of aid to Haiti, but a week after an earthquake devastated its capital the relief effort was increasingly hampered by a crimp in the supply chain: a shortage of gasoline that left medicine, food and water sitting out of reach of the needy.
President Rene Preval said Haitian authorities had buried 72,000 victims of the quake, a figure that does not include an untold number buried privately. Officials have estimated that 200,000 people may have died.
In badly damaged neighborhoods throughout the city, heavy equipment crews began tearing into thousands of collapsed buildings. An exodus increased, as survivors packed up their families and belongings and headed to the provinces.
Those who remained in the city were watching the skies. Rain clouds gathered over the high pine ridges far above the city. Sometimes the mountains hold them back; sometimes they don’t.
“If it rains now, it will be a total catastrophe for us,” Preval said. Tens of thousands of people are living in tent cities that spread daily through soccer fields, school grounds and parks. Rain could loosen tons of concrete rubble.
The country has only a two-week supply of fuel on hand, and the wharf where tankers would unload supplies was badly damaged.
Gregory Mevs, a businessman who controls the storage of petroleum products, said 1 million gallons of gasoline and diesel would be distributed Tuesday through the city. But in addition to supplying vehicles used for fuel deliveries, gasoline is in high demand for generators. Priority on Tuesday went to five hospitals that were running out of fuel to run their generators.
Mevs said his company would be able to repair the wharf in time to bring in more fuel.
Looting, fistfights and other bursts of violence rippled across the city. Wilson Louis, the mayor of Cite Soleil, a slum where an estimated 500,000 people live, said relatively few had died there, but that the neighborhood had received nothing and frustration was growing. “All the conditions are coming together for people to begin rioting – rioting against the government and against the international community,” he said.
The appearance of U.S. forces on the grounds of the presidential palace, a symbol of authority in Haiti, was a striking sign of the growing American role. Aware of possible political sensitivities stemming from past U.S. interventions, military officials have gone out of their way to assure Haitians that they are not taking over.