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Haitians start helping selves

Promised aid still hasn’t reached some villages

People run as a U.N. helicopter takes off from a makeshift camp for earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince on Thursday.  (Associated Press)
People run as a U.N. helicopter takes off from a makeshift camp for earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince on Thursday. (Associated Press)
Jonathan M. Katz Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – In the month since the worst disaster in Haitian history, an enormous international aid effort has not provided the people of the Marassa 14 neighborhood with the food, shelter and security they need. So they built a new community from scratch.

Cardboard street signs mark the rows of makeshift plastic tents where more than 2,500 people sleep in the dirt. Handwritten ID cards stamped by a security committee show who belongs, and women serve cheap fried plantains and breadfruit for families struggling to feed their children.

One month after 40 seconds of terrifying shaking killed more than 200,000 of their relatives and neighbors and leveled most of their capital, Haiti’s endlessly resilient people are struggling to recreate their lives.

Food has yet to reach all of the 3 million people who need it. Infrastructure problems and supply backlogs continue to hamper an international aid effort that has drawn $537 million from the United States alone. Schools remain closed. And on Thursday morning, in a taste of the new horrors the impending rainy season promises to bring, an early morning downpour muddied the dirt in which 1.2 million people have pitched a makeshift camp.

Downtown, hundreds of Haitians marched Thursday from the destroyed National Palace to the temporary government headquarters demanding the resignation of President Rene Preval, who has been largely out of sight since the catastrophe. He appeared Wednesday to bicker publicly with his communications minister over the death toll.

Amid the chaos and unmet needs, there are obvious signs of progress: The United Nations, itself devastated by the quake, has established a tent-and-trailer city on the airport grounds to coordinate the efforts of 900 aid agencies who finally appear to be overcoming huge problems with communications, transportation and infrastructure.

Cell phone coverage has vastly improved. Gas stations have reopened – though that has also meant traffic is back to its normal, intolerable state. Massive amounts of rubble are still everywhere – loaded into dump trucks, the convoy would stretch from Port-au-Prince to Moscow, officials said – but at least it has been pushed to the sides of the roads.

But even though top foreign and Haitian officials say immediate needs are being met, in villages like Marassa – a district whose name means “twins” in Creole – children are going unfed and families are competing for shelter they know will not hold up for long.

On Wednesday, with just 49,000 of a requested 200,000 tents provided, officials announced that deliveries will stop. Foreign governments, aid groups and Haitian officials have decided that tents take up too much space and will not last long enough.

Instead, 250,000 families will get one sheet of plastic each between now and May 1, and will later receive temporary, earthquake-resistant structures of metal and wood. If those numbers hold up, they will help about 60 percent of the population in need.

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