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Haiti, Six Months Since The Earthquake


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Next week, we mark six months since an earthquake hit Haiti and devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince. It left more than 300,000 people dead and destroyed 280,000 homes and businesses. Millions continue to struggle today.


Aid groups and the Haitian government provide relief, but mountains of rubble remain to be removed. An estimated 1.5 million Haitians are still homeless, and the arrival of hurricane season raises deep concerns about what might happen in the squalid tent cities of Port-au-Prince.

Today, six months later, a status report on Haiti. Later in the hour, Scout, Atticus and Boo. You can send us your reflections on "To Kill A Mockingbird" on email now. The address is

But first, if you have relatives in Haiti, if you've traveled there since the earthquake, tell us your story. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin with Paul Weisenfeld. He's the coordinator of the Haiti Task Team for USAID, and he joins us from his office here in Washington. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. PAUL WEISENFELD (Coordinator, Haiti Task Team, USAID): Very nice to meet you.


CONAN: And it seems that Haiti is still burdened with some of the same problems it had almost immediately after the earthquake struck.

Mr. WEISENFELD: Well, there's no question that there are significant challenges that Haiti's facing. The magnitude of the disaster was absolutely tremendous. I think it's important to remember that this is the largest natural disaster we've ever seen in the Western Hemisphere, and it's given us the largest number of urban displaced people ever, with, as you said, 1.5 million people displaced in an urban setting.

It's something that the international humanitarian community hasn't confronted before, but I think we've seen a very robust response not only from the U.S., although we've played a significant role, but also robust response from the United Nations and other major donors.

CONAN: And among the concerns is that tent cities are incredibly difficult places to live in, incredibly difficult places to govern, and sometimes, they turn into shantytowns - permanent residences.

Mr. WEISENFELD: I think that's exactly right. That absolutely is one of the significant challenges, what we do with the large number of displaced people living in tent cities.

Many of them are living under heavy-duty tarps that we provided, that provide shelter from the basic elements. But the big challenge is how we move aggressively and rapidly to provide more permanent shelter for these people, to protect them from the elements but also to rebuild communities and rebuild the lives.

CONAN: And there was hope in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that despite the horrible situation, a better Haiti might arise. Is that hope glimmering away?

Mr. WEISENFELD: I don't think so at all. I think, as we've talked about, there are challenges. One of the main challenges in getting people out of these spontaneous settlement areas is removing the rubble. The amount of rubble is extraordinarily high in Haiti. We've seen estimates as high as 50 times the amount of rubble that was created in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

So we need to move towards moving the rubble, getting people back in homes. But I think one of if you think about what's a cause for optimism, there's still tremendous attention of the international community on the plight of Haiti, and the donors have pledged an enormous amount of money, and we've seen real leadership by the government of Haiti and the creation of an interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission that was patterned after the successful commission in Indonesia, following the Indonesian tsunami.

So I think we have structures in place to really set priorities and lead a reconstruction effort going forward.

CONAN: Are you convinced that the moneys that you're expending on behalf of the United States are being spent properly and on the right things?

Mr. WEISENFELD: I think absolutely. There's never 100 percent certainty for accounting for resources in a disaster context, but we have been very aggressive about having our inspector general on the ground with us.

We intend to embed a full-time, large staff of inspector generals there who can do concurrent auditing of our programs.

The General Accounting Office of the Congress has just launched an audit program, and we really welcome that because we find that information and feedback from those groups helps us improve programming and ensure not only not just transparency - but better use of resources and accountability for the American taxpayer.

CONAN: We're talking with Paul Weisenfeld, coordinator of the Haiti Task Team for USAID. If you've been to Haiti since the earthquake, if you have relatives there, call us with your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, And Francie(ph) is with us from Boston.

FRANCIE (Caller): Well, thank you. So how are you doing?

CONAN: I'm very well, thank you.

FRANCIE: I was in Haiti when the earthquake happened. I was right at the epicenter of it. It's just like, you know, from what I have experienced, what I have seen, you know, I wish I wish not upon everybody to have seen the disaster that I have seen.

(Unintelligible), the only complaint that I have, you know, I was in Haiti, and paying attention to what the Haitian government will say to the people of Haiti, and myself as a Haitian woman, not one day ever have I heard the President Preval ever came out and spoke to us and said you know what? This is a tragedy. This is Mother Nature. We're going to get through it together. We have to pull ourselves together.

He never came out and gave a speech. He never came out and talked to the people. And I'm extremely frustrated about this whole situation. Living in the U.S., if this earthquake had taken place in the U.S., President Obama would have been out on television and saying this is a problem, we're going to get through it together.

But that did not happen in Haiti, and I'm extremely angry about that.

CONAN: Well, Paul Weisenfeld thank you very much, and Francie, I hope you're doing well.

FRANCIE: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, bye-bye. Paul Weisenfeld, obviously you can't speak for President Preval of Haiti, nor about what President Obama might do in an analogous situation, but we can ask you about cooperation with the Haitian government. Are they being responsive? Are they being I don't want to put too much into the word but competent?

Mr. WEISENFELD: Well, I think we have absolutely seen an increased active role of the Haitian government in the disaster response and in planning for the reconstruction.

It is it's a tremendously difficult situation. I think it's important to recognize and remember the context. There were 28 or 29 ministries that were wholly or partially destroyed in the capital. The government of Haiti lost in excess of 10 percent of the civil servants.

I've heard figures as high as 20 to 25 percent, and there aren't precise calculations yet. But if you kind of imagine that sort of devastation of government, physical and human infrastructure in the United States, it would be debilitating to any government.

So nonetheless, we think that if reconstruction is going to be successful and sustainable, it has to be Haitian-led. So we've been committed to providing additional human resources to the government. We've provided funding for standing up the government buildings physically, in temporary structures, because it obviously takes a long time to build permanent structures. And we've seconded additional staff to the government to try and help them out.

We've provided staff, particularly on the communications side, which the caller talked about, because I think she has a point. Communicating to the people is very important. And we've seen in some of the settlement areas where people had to be resettled a month or two ago, as in anticipation of the rains, we saw President Preval actually go to the resettlement camps and talk to people.

So, we've been trying to provide the resources for them so they can carry out their critical roles, but it's there's no question, if you've suffered the kind of losses they did, that they'll be challenged for some time to come.

CONAN: We have an email here, this from Maggie in Eastpointe in Michigan. Several months after the quake, one of the roving gangs of criminals, mostly from the destroyed prison, murdered the leader of a great NGO, Pastor Louis of the Haitian Lutheran Missions, which runs an orphanage, schools and medical clinics. What is the security status in Haiti? What should the international community be doing to at least protect those who are rebuilding or leading the rebuilding?

Mr. WEISENFELD: Yeah, it's a tremendous sad development, particularly because in the several years prior to the earthquake, we'd seen real progress on a number of fronts in Haiti.

Haiti is a country that has experienced political instability and violence at various periods of its history, and those have obviously obviously have, from a development perspective in USAID, we worry about the overall security situation because we know that you don't see countries move into greater prosperity in an insecure environment.

Haiti having seen some real improvements, it's sad to see that some gang violence is restarting again.

The United Nations Special Mission for Haiti, MINUSTAH, is there in full force. MINUSTAH was one of the reasons they had experienced improvements before, and MINUSTAH unfortunately, itself, suffered dramatically.

They lost their, pretty much their entire leadership in the earthquake. They lost their building. So it took them a while to re-staff up. They have troops it's an international peacekeeping operation, so they have troops from a variety of countries.

The United States contributes in a monetary way to allow MINUSTAH to be there, but I think what the international community can do is to support the international effort, led by MINUSTAH and the U.N., to ensure that there's a stable environment.

CONAN: And listeners will remember that U.S. military forces were there, in some numbers, for some months afterwards, but they have since left.

Mr. WEISENFELD: Yes, the U.S. military was there bringing the unique capacities that the U.S. military can. At the height, there were 22,000 troops, not all on the ground in Haiti. A large part of the operation was managed by naval vessels offshore that were providing logistical support.

One of the main reasons for that was the airport and the port were significantly damaged, and it was not feasible to bring in the large quantities of assistance that were needed through normal commercial channels.

So the U.S. military provided invaluable support - under the leadership of USAID. We were designated by President Obama, as the lead agency in this whole-of-government effort, and we coordinated with the military in repairing the port, repairing the airport, doing air and lift support for the commodities.

They have departed in a big way. They are doing in the Gonaives area, they have about 500 troops, right now, who are doing humanitarian assistance, repairing and building schools and looking at bridges. And that's critically important in Gonaives, in the north of the country, because that area has been particularly susceptible to hurricanes.

CONAN: And it is hurricane season for now and the next several months. So that's something everyone will be watching closely. We know you have to leave. You've got other priorities this afternoon. But in the minute or so we have left, what does Haiti need right now?

Mr. WEISENFELD: Well, I think Haiti needs the continued attention of the international community. It's a country that in many ways has felt that it has not captured the attention and we've seen that now.

We've seen Hollywood stars focus on Haiti. We were extremely fortunate to have former President Clinton as the co-chair of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission. I think that attention can help motivate Haitians to know that they're not in this alone, dealing with the largest tragedy we've ever seen in our hemisphere.

And they need our sustained attention because the rebuilding effort is going to be an effort that will take many years to come. You can't recover from that type of devastation in a capital in a short time.

The devastation was calculated to exceed the annual GDP of Haiti, 120 percent of the annual GDP. So that is it's going to be a long-term recovery process, and we have to - when Haiti is no longer on the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, it has to stay front and center in the minds of those of us working to reconstruct the country.

CONAN: Paul Weisenfeld, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. WEISENFELD: Thank you.

CONAN: Paul Weisenfeld of USAID. When we come back, we'll be talking with Deborah Sontag, a reporter for the New York Times, who's been covering Haiti for the past six months; and Andrea Koppel of the Red Cross. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We first got word of the massive earthquake in Haiti on the afternoon of January 12th, six months ago this coming Monday. In the weeks and months since, temporary shelters have evolved into makeshift homes as the long list of promises to rebuild country have fallen short, at least thus far.

Millions of Haitians continue to struggle to get by. If you have relatives there, if you've traveled to Haiti since the earthquake, call, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now is Deborah Sontag, who spent much of the past six months reporting from Haiti for the New York Times. You can find a link to her coverage on our website, at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. She joins us from New York, in her office. Deborah Sontag, nice to have you with us today.

Ms. DEBORAH SONTAG (Reporter, New York Times): Nice to be here. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And as you look at the situation and what remains to be done, it's easy to come to the conclusion that very little has been done.

Ms. SONTAG: Right. If you look at especially the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area right now, you know, the streets are still choked with rubble, and you've got hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who are still living in the precarious, spontaneous settlements that they hastily formed immediately after the earthquake.

However, you know, it is the largest, you know, urban disaster in modern history. And it is probably important to note what hasn't happened there. You know, there hasn't been a massive breakdown in security. There hasn't been a major outbreak of disease. There hasn't been major malnutrition or starvation. And somehow, all of those people who were displaced from their homes did get some kind of shelter, food and water and medical services over the last six months.

What seems to be happening now is that people are becoming entrenched in the state of emergency and that the government and the international community is having a hard time shifting gears into the period of recovery they should be in by now.

CONAN: From the emergency phase to the recovery phase.

Ms. SONTAG: Right.

CONAN: Yeah. The situation in those tent cities, well, squalid is certainly the description of some of them. Dangerous?

Ms. SONTAG: There are a variety of conditions. There are something like 1,200 of these encampments that range in size from, you know, a couple of dozen families to, you know, small cities the size of Fairfax or something like that.

And some of them are managed by external organizations, international organizations, and they can be quite well-organized, with tents lined up in grids and, you know, daily schedules and programs. And some of them are really pretty horrible, dangerous, fetid, you know, really squalid places.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the conversation. Let's go to Will(ph), Will with us from Charlotte.

WILL (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

WILL: Good, good. I had a great opportunity to visit about two weeks ago with a group of men from my church who are organized through the North Carolina Baptist Men. We stayed on a large campus that was involving the Samaritan's Purse and the world missions and had a chance to work in a small village just north of town.

The thing that I walked away with was the spirit of the Haitian people. Again, I'd heard all the news and was worried about what I'd find, but when I got there, I found people that, at least just from the village standpoint, maybe not Port-au-Prince, were anxious to try to help themselves.

We had volunteers with us every day that were not getting paid a penny but just invested their time in trying to rebuild their village and get back to a state of where they were.

CONAN: So it sounds like you came home feeling more optimistic than when you left.

WILL: Very, very much inspired about the individuals and the personal level and the faith that I saw with people but was also discouraged about the stories that I heard with the organizations trying to work with the government and the government basically holding things in port until fees were paid. And that was the thing I was more disappointed in.

I really felt like the people want to help themselves, and there's so much potential with them, but then the government's holding them back and was petty and selfishness and trying to, you know, get everything they can from the rest of the world, in spite of helping the people that they're trying to serve.

CONAN: Will, thanks very much for the story. I guess the story of red tape is not new but not nice whenever you see it in that sort of a situation. Appreciate the phone call, Will.

WILL: Thank you.

CONAN: Let me introduce Andrea Koppel, here with us in Studio 3A, director of international communications for the Red Cross. And you've been in and out of Haiti. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Ms. ANDREA KOPPEL (Director of International Communications, Red Cross): Thank you for inviting me, Neal.

CONAN: And as you look at your operations in Haiti, the situation that we've heard described, removal of the rubble, are you still in the emergency phase?

Ms. KOPPEL: Absolutely. We've been saying for months now that we anticipate the emergency stage could last as long as a year. At the same time, as the emergency stage continues, we have already begun the recovery phase.

In between the two of these, while we're still delivering water every day, while we still deliver emergency shelters because some of those tarps and tents are deteriorating in the hot sun and due to the rains, we're also moving forward with the very slow and arduous process of building some of these semi-permanent or transitional shelters.

CONAN: Semi moving from, well, obviously dangerous situations to semi-permanent? Can't we go further than that?

Ms. KOPPEL: You would hope so, and let me explain the process. Some of our some of the participants in this call have alluded to this. It's incredibly complicated in Haiti not just the tremendous amount of rubble that still needs to be removed but the land tenure issues.

Many of the paperwork, the land deeds, were destroyed in the earthquake. The decisions as to who owns the land, many of the people who are now living in those tent cities were living in apartment buildings. Those apartment buildings were destroyed. Many of the homes that were there were destroyed.

Can you now, if you didn't own the land, the apartment building that you live in, do you have a right to squat in that piece of land?

CONAN: On that same area, right.

Ms. KOPPEL: In that same land. The American Red Cross, this isn't our country. So it's not up to us to decide where we're going to build these shelters. It's up to the Haitian government to tell us where we can build them. And even then, how are they going to collect rent?

There are so many layers to this, Neal, and so while we would like to build permanent shelters, that's going to be even more complicated because you're talking about something that can last ad infinitum. At least with the semi-permanent shelters, and we're really talking about structures that are built with timber, with corrugated steel, these are more than the tarps and tents that exist there. They can be disassembled quite easily and moved.

CONAN: I wanted to bring Deborah Sontag back in, this conversation about the land tenure issues, the earlier caller complaining about the government holding supplies up in the harbor until all the paperwork is properly signed for and everything else and perhaps a handout or two, does all that sound familiar?

Ms. SONTAG: It does. I think the customs clearance has been really the major issue where the government could, you know, take a make a simple decision and speed things up.

Immediately after the earthquake, they kind of abandoned customs and moved supplies quickly into the country. And now, you know, the relief and recovery materials are getting held at the port. And it's not just that there's red tape, which there is a lot of. They are also charging a storage fee per day, you know, for the containers that are being held there. So it's an income-generator for them.

In other areas, I would say, you know, you had, you know, a weak or a developing government that was, you know, as devastated by the earthquake in terms of personnel and, you know, government offices as the general population was, and, you know, they're skittish about the same things their people are skittish about.

You know, they don't want to make the wrong decisions. They don't want to put people at risk again. For example, they would like to encourage people to return to intact homes in their neighborhoods. It's difficult because a lot of neighborhoods are filled with rubble, but there are people who are starting to do that.

But the government is not very vocal about encouraging people to return home because they're scared that while the homes might be, you know, structurally sound, the land beneath them is not, that there could be flooding, there could be landslides, another earthquake could hit.

So, you know, sometimes, they're having a hard time making decisions for quite, you know, quite complex, human reasons.

CONAN: All right, let's see if we can go to another caller. This is Scott(ph), Scott with us from Miami.

SCOTT (Caller): Yes, hi, good afternoon. I was listening to your other callers, and my perspective might be a little bit different. I was down there about four months after the earthquake. I'm a cameraman with a network, TV network.

I had been there in '84, right after Baby Doc left, and then back again doing a follow-up, and I'm just overwhelmed by the immensity of the situation down there.

You know, I listened to some of the other folks, and I don't even think the government functions down there. You know, we're trying to say, you know, we're dealing with this entity and dealing with that entity. It's I don't want to say it's discouraging. I think all things are possible. But the level, the complexity and just the amount of obstacles there, it's overwhelming. I'm not going to be discouraging, but I'm a realist. I mean, the tent cities are - you know, it sounds like a tent operation.

These were sticks, pieces of blankets, corrugated metal, horrible sanitary facilities. And this was two months ago. Maybe things have changed, but I don't know. I just think it's a big order, and I don't think the government functions there. And I think that's one of the biggest issues.

CONAN: We'll cut that into a couple of pieces, Scott, but thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

In terms of those - the conditions of those cities, Andrea Koppel, isn't that something the Red Cross can help out with? Provide tents and tarpaulins and clean water, that sort of thing?

Ms. KOPPEL: Absolutely. Well, certainly, the American Red Cross and our partners within the global Red Cross network have provided about 40 percent of all the emergency shelter materials that are among those hundreds upon hundreds of camps that Deborah mentioned there.

In terms of managing the camp, the Red Cross doesn't manage the camps. That's done by other organizations. We are trying to supply emergency needs, address emergency needs, as I mentioned, with water and other materials. But we're also trying to move forward into the recovery phase. We're moving forward. We're building some of the shelters where we can. Just a few within Port-au-Prince, in a community near Cite Soleil, which is one of the poorest neighborhoods...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KOPPEL: Port-au-Prince, and then outside the capital, in some of the surrounding communities such as Leogane and Petit Goave, where land tenure issues and rubble removal isn't as complicated. So we're trying to move forward in the places that we can and provide the aid that we can, as well.

CONAN: And I wanted to put the other side of that to you, Deborah Sontag, and add to it this email we got from Martha in Denver: I was in Haiti three weeks ago with the Medishare Project out of the University of Miami's Global Institute. I was there just one week, but every Haitian we spoke with reported the government has quote, "done nothing but buying new cars with the aid monies." We left the trauma hospital only one time for a brief tour of Port-au-Prince. We saw no reconstruction crews or equipment, no cleanup efforts by the government. We were told by our tour guide that if the government started cleaning up the rubble of the palace and other government buildings, they would possibly not continue to receive aid. Is that the situation, as you see it?

Ms. SONTAG: Well, I don't know about that last part. That sounds a little ridiculous to me. But the - as the cameraman said, who just called in...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SONTAG:'s an overwhelming situation to tackle. And I think the government is overwhelmed. And they kind of try and chip away at it, you know, small pieces. They'll do a pilot - try to do a pilot project, you know, of one - moving one group of people back to their neighborhoods, and they'll get bogged down in the logistical details. And they're tentative about making decisions. You know, but they have done things. I mean, it's not that they haven't done anything.

You know, they did manage to survey, you know, more than 100,000 homes in the Port-au-Prince area. And, you know, it was a preliminary structural survey. They trained and just got engineers trained, got them out there. They determined whether the homes were - you know, needed to be demolished, whether they were reparable or whether they were completely fine and could be moved back into right away.

They have done some cleanup work. You know, the rubble removal issue is enormous. And, you know, Prime Minister Bellerive, the prime minister of the country, speaking right after the first and only meeting of the reconstruction commission that's taken so far, answered a Haitian journalist's question about why there's been so much talk and so little progress by saying, well, it looks that way if you confine yourself to the Port-au-Prince area. But if you get out of the Port-au-Prince area, you'll see roads are being built, et cetera, et cetera.

And it was a very telling comment because, of course, the Port-au-Prince area has a good portion of the population. It was terribly hit by the earthquake. It's in the center of the country. And if things are not visibly different there, then things are not really visibly different in the country as a whole.

CONAN: We're talking with Deborah Sontag of The New York Times and Andrea Koppel of the Red Cross. You're listening TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go to Joshua, Joshua with us from Wake Forest in North Carolina.

JOSHUA (Caller): Yes. I was actually born in Port-au-Prince, moved to the States when I was about three years old. I had - I'd lost a couple of family members in the quake. I think - my personal opinion is that the reconstruction would be better served if they had expatriates, people with Haitian (unintelligible) or people who, like myself, are born in Haiti but educated here in the U.S., to be a part of that effort. I think the effort would go much better. I will have to agree with the previous caller - Scott, I believe his name was...


JOSHUA: ...who said that the government is a failed government, and they're not doing anything for the people, because it's true. So that - just looking at the government, I think...

CONAN: You're calling us from Wake Forest...

JOSHUA: ...(unintelligible) but...

CONAN: Excuse me, Josh...

JOSHUA: ...I think the people like the guests you have on your show, they're working for us and helping the Haitian people, I believe anything is possible. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Joshua, quickly, you're calling us from Wake Forest. You're still on school there? I guess Joshua has left us. Anyway, the - there was a lot of question, Deborah Sontag, about who would be in charge of the recovery, that it had to be put in the hands of Haitians. Are they in charge, and are expatriates helping?

Ms. SONTAG: Well, that is the dangerous balancing act right now, when you have so much international attention and assistance there. The "international community," quote, unquote, you know, wants to help the Haitian government develop and redevelop itself, and they want them to be in charge. Nobody wants to take over Haiti. And Haitians are properly sensitive about their own sovereignty. Could the government of Haiti extend a hand to the Diaspora and seek its assistance? Sure. And, you know, I think there are many Haitian-Americans who are working in Haiti right now. I bump into them all the time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SONTAG: So...

CONAN: Oh, well. Deborah Sontag, we know you're on deadline for a story, and we appreciate your taking time out today to be with us.

Ms. SONTAG: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Deborah Sontag, a reporter for The New York Times, who spent much of the past six months reporting from Haiti. Our thanks as well to Andrea Koppel, director of international communications for the Red Cross, who joined us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: We're talking about the - coming up, we're going to be talking about Scout, Atticus and Boo as they turn 50, the book so many of us have in common, "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.