A group of US Marines helped unload rice destined for flood victims from the UN food program in Haiti yesterday.
A group of US Marines helped unload rice destined for flood victims from the UN food program in Haiti yesterday. (Reuters Photo)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — This country’s bureaucracy moves at a snail’s pace, even in times of disaster.

Last Monday, flash floods ripped through several mountainside villages, killing hundreds in Haiti and neighboring Dominican Republic and leaving thousands homeless. One day later, the government’s crisis managers arrived at the scene. Afterward, the managers filed a written report to the Interior Minister’s office, who requested disaster aid from the finance minister. By then it was the weekend.

A full week after the floods hit, the finance minister is expected to finally release approximately $300,000 for the victims. Sometime next week, the victims will start receiving that aid.

“You know how things are in Haiti,” said an exasperated Marie Alta Jean Baptiste, interim head of Haiti’s Civil Protection Institute, the government agency that deals with disasters. “Things are slow.”

The death toll from the flooding, which swept away entire villages, is not known. Some estimates from authorities put it in the thousands.

As of yesterday, the Civil Protection Institute said there 592 presumed dead in Haiti; the National Emergency Commission in the Dominican Republic reported 379 dead and 352 missing in that country. To avoid the spread of disease, Dominicans reportedly are burying people is mass graves.

On top of the misery, a weak earthquake hit in the disaster zone in the south-central part of the island of Hispaniola, though there were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

Jean Baptiste’s job is hard under normal circumstances. Thousands are vulnerable to disasters in Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, because unregulated housing lies on dangerous slopes. In 1998, her office recommended that townspeople in one flood-stricken zone be asked to move elsewhere. Nothing happened, and now hundreds may be dead there.

Her job has been made more difficult because the government is barely operational these days. Following an uprising in the countryside and major political unrest in the big cities, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled on Feb. 29.

Riots, looting, and plunder accompanied Aristide’s departure, leaving the official coffers empty and the country’s infrastructure in shambles. Since Aristide left, the US has committed 1,900 troops as part of a 3,900 troop international contingent known as the Combined Joint Task Force-Haiti. On Tuesday, UN troops will arrive.

The interim government is “on international life support,” one senior Western diplomat here said on condition of anonymity. “And they will be for the duration. The main function is to take the country to elections,” sometime next year.

In the meantime, it’s up to countries like the United States to provide security and keep this government afloat.

Last week, the White House pledged an additional $100 million in aid to Haiti, on top of the $60 million is has given the past three months. In recent years, the Haitian government has operated on a $500 million annual budget. The United States also released $100,000 in aid for flood victims, and more aid is expected in the coming days.

Jean Baptiste’s agency typifies the Haitian government’s desparation. Her team of 12 people is crammed into a spare office on the second floor of a delapidated building in central Port-au-Prince. Some of the windows hang together with the help of electrical tape; exposed wires droop from the ceiling.

The Civil Protection Institute was supposed to move to another building but constant energy shortages since Aristide’s departure (there are only two functioning stop lights in the entire city) and the lack of a generator has left them in the lurch. The new office sits empty and wanting.

Baptiste’s crisis managers might not have made it to flood-stricken zones so quickly were in not for US and Canadian helicopters. The Haitian government has no helicopters.

In addition to the $50,000 the US Embassy provided for flood victims, the Combined Joint Task Force-Haiti has airlifted $43,000 in mostly rice, water, beans, and cooking oil to flood-stricken zones. The Task Force has spent tens of thousands of dollars more in man hours and jet fuel.

“The interim government has a great deal of interest in trying to address the issues,” said Task Force spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel David Lapan. “[But] they lack resources, plain and simple . . . Right now they have to rely on the multinational force and the international community.”

In much of the rest of Haiti, life continues apace. As bad as the floods are, other problems loom large.

“The government has no money,” said Jean-Philippe Sassine, one of three interim mayors in Port-au-Prince. “All the infrastructure of the government, all the institutions of the country are looted, nonfuctional, nonmanagable. And the biggest thing of all is the insecurity is still there.”

Despite the presence of multinational troops, kidnapping and other crimes are on the rise. Aristide loyalists are said to maintain their weapons in city slums, and rebels who worked to oust Aristide remain in control of several towns and villages.

“There’s urgency everywhere. And on top of that you have the flood,” Sassine said.