January 22, 2010 // Uncategorized

CRS rep in Haiti says aid distribution is going as quickly as possible

By Dennis Sadowski

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Aid distribution under military escort is proceeding as quickly as possible around Port-au-Prince, given that many roads remain blocked by debris and thousands of people are pressing aid agencies for assistance, said the head of operations for Catholic Relief Services in Haiti.

“It has become impossible to do any distribution without a military escort,” Karel Zelenka, CRS country representative, told Catholic News Service Jan. 21. “That puts stress on other parts of life here.”

Driving the security concerns, according to Zelenka, is the escape of up to 5,000 inmates from the city’s prison. Haitian President Rene Preval said many of the escaped prisoners have resorted to looting and armed robbery in several Port-au-Prince neighborhoods.

Zelenka, who arrived in Haiti in October from Zimbabwe, said CRS staff members are working to distribute goods from two warehouses in the capital as well as from a large ship that was able to dock at the city’s devastated port.

“We’re doing our utmost in terms of distribution,” he said.

The Vatican has designated CRS as the lead agency to coordinate aid from the global Catholic Church.

“The problems are logistical and security,” he said. “On such a short notice it’s just impossible to get these kinds of quantities (of supplies) all over the country. There’s hardly any infrastructure at all. Now, can you imagine, you’re supposed to move these huge quantities of supplies on roads that were nonexistent before the earthquake? It’s just really inhuman.

“It’s unfair,” he said of the disaster that hit Haitians. “It’s an injustice.”

“People ask why are we so slow. On the contrary, I say it’s almost a miracle that we’ve been able to move so much, thousands of metric tons. … Given the congestion, even the confusion, this is inhuman,” Zelenka added.

He said the round-the-clock assistance that CRS staff members have provided for some of the estimated 3 million injured and homeless Haitians since the Jan. 12 quake cannot be sustained indefinitely. He said he and others fear that strong aftershocks, such as the magnitude 5.9 tremor that shook the region Jan. 20, could raise the level of panic again.

“The damn thing is so unpredictable,” he told CNS by satellite phone.

On a hillside overlooking the capital Jan. 19, CRS opened a camp where 20,000 people had gathered shortly after the quake. The camp — located on a golf course in Petionville, just outside Port-au-Prince — opened with the help of the U.S. military and the U.N. The camp houses as many as 50,000 people at night, Zelenka said.

Distribution of aid at the camp, for the most part, has been orderly, he said.

“The critical needs now are food, food, food and second are medical supplies,” he added. “There are so many people who have been injured. Amputations are going on 24 hours a day. But there is not enough medical materials and not enough trained doctors.”

Earthquake relief efforts are nothing new to Zelenka. In a 23-year career at CRS, Zelenka worked in Turkey and Indonesia following major earthquakes.

“But this is unprecedented,” he said of the situation in Haiti.

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