Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Ambassador sees progress in Haiti

By Mark Curnutte

OXFORD – Haitian, United States and international officials are doing everything in their control to transition Haiti into a state of rebuilding following the devastating destruction and death wrought by the January earthquake.

Kenneth Merten, U.S. ambassador to Haiti, said the feared cholera outbreak in squatter camps has not unfolded, that food, water and medicine continue to be distributed throughout the country and that many of the 1.3 million displaced people are being moved to safer, cleaner temporary housing.

But, Merten told The Enquirer in an interview late Saturday, things could be better.

Blocked aid money from the international community needs to be loosed and distributed, and the Haitian government needs to resolve land title issues in days, not weeks or months, to allow more foreign investment by non-government agencies and nonprofits.

In the past two months, as the nation moved into its notorious rainy season, several squatter camps have consolidated, with residents being moved to higher ground “so they won’t be washed out to sea,” Merten said in the interview following his Miami University commencement address Saturday at Yager Stadium.

“Our mitigation efforts have involved putting down gravel so the ground doesn’t turn to mud. We’ve improved sanitation.”

About 800 camps remain in the Port-au-Prince area, where the 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck at 4:53 p.m. Jan. 12.

More than 500,000 are feared dead, though the official death toll stands at 230,000.

Haitian police and United Nations troops have stepped up patrols in camps, where incidents of rape are reported to have increased.

“The neighborhoods where these people used to live were not safe, either,” he said. “These were places that were not accessible by car. The problems we’re dealing with now were the same as Jan. 11. Now they’re just in public places, not that conditions are that good in either situation.”

Officials are trying to get more people to move out of squatter camps, such as the one near the Presidential Palace in downtown Port-au-Prince.

“We have to deal with the housing problem fairly,” Merten said. “I don’t underestimate how sensitive it’s going to be in terms of deciding whose house gets rebuilt. A lot of people stayed near their homes, which were damaged or destroyed, and didn’t move into the tent cities.”

There is one great looming fear that is beyond anyone’s control: hurricane season. It will arrive in July and continue through the end of September.

In 2008 alone, four hurricanes – Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike – hit Haiti in the span of one month and accounted for 800 deaths. The northern city of Gonaives, where 50,000 to 100,000 displaced people from the Port-au-Prince earthquake have resettled, was under water. More than half of the nation’s crops were destroyed, including the valuable native rice crop grown in the Artibonite Valley. In 2004, 2,500 Haitians, about 2,000 of them in Gonaives, were killed by Hurricane Jeanne and related flooding.

“It’s a huge concern for us and the Haitians,” Merten said of hurricane season. “I’m not sure we have many options. We will do the best we can. The high winds will be a problem for the housing made from sheets, plastic tarps and even sheet metal.”

The U.S. military is planning for hurricane season. A Navy ship is stationed of the northwest coast, said Merten, a 1983 Miami graduate from Hudson, Ohio.

In spite of the uncertain future and other concerns, Merten said the quake aftermath has been handled as well as can be expected in Haiti. Widespread violence and rioting did not happen, he said. Officials were able to get food, water and medicine to the people who needed it.

“There has been some luck,” he said. “But considering how dire the problem was, it has worked pretty well. I’m proud of the international communities’ response and the amazing job by the (U.S.) Department of State, USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and the military. The big challenge now is going from recovery to rebuilding.”

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