by Mike Taibbi
14 February, Port au Prince– We heard there were protests downtown that were angry enough they could soon become riots, so we gathered our gear and headed that way. It had rained overnight, drenching downpours, the first rain in the month since the quake, but the morning skies were clearing.
When we got to the airport road, blue-helmeted UN peacekeeping troops tried to turn us around and away from the protestors we could see and hear from a couple hundred yards away, until the troops understood we were press.
It was a group full of rage and frustration, some holding signs in English saying ‘We Need Food,” “We need water,” “We need toilets,” “We need HELP!” One man told me, through our translator, that the group all came from the tent encampment that had sprung up between the airport grounds and a wide sewage trough, a couple of thousand people squeezed in that fetid noisy space, and that it was the rains overnight that had pushed people over the edge.
“A baby was born last night and then died,” he said, “the mother with no cover from the rain.” He said most in the camp had lost loved ones to the earthquake, but that “living like this…with no help… it’s like we are dying mentally…”
Just then a tractor-trailer rig inched toward the crowd of protestors, who massed in front of it and forced the driver to stop. There was a big Red Cross logo tied to the front bumper and the driver… gesturing nervously… waved a manifest in front of the face of a man who’d climbed to the cab to confront him. Other protestors forced open the back flaps of the trailer, confirming there were no supplies inside worth taking. The truck was allowed to pass.
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They wanted us to meet the mother who’d lost her child but she was no longer in her spot in the camp; no one knew where she’d gone. Afterward we kept walking through the camp, not really a “tent city” in that there were few actual tents. Most had fashioned shelters using nothing more than sheets or blankets or slabs of plastic dressed over poles or lengths of twine. In fact, the vast international aid community, 900 or more relief groups, had just reached a new consensus regarding tents… that even a good tent would provide poor cover in the coming rain and hurricane season and that the better way to go was to plan for sturdier structures of wood frames and corrugated tin roofs with a projected life span of three-to-five years. So the distribution of family-sized four-person tents had basically stopped at fewer than 50,000…with more than one million Haitians made homeless by those 40 seconds of horror on January 12. We met dozens of them on this visit, some pointing to the two huge water tanks the Red Cross had installed two weeks earlier…that had not been replenished in more than a week.
As it happened, a Red Cross team arrived just then, led by a genial soft-spoken man named Stanley Miles, from Arlington Texas. He said it was still a huge problem getting gasoline and diesel so the trucks could make their deliveries, and that even when supplies have been delivered “they’re often hoarded by someone, I don’t know who, and they never get to the poorest people who need it most. We’re doing the best we can, the need is so great…”
MIKE TAIBBI is a correspondent for NBC News. He lives in North Haven.