A Global Village
Issue 2

Crisis in Haiti

The WFP Faces an Unprecedented Challenge

David Orr, World Food Program

This particular earthquake assistance operation has been the most complex, most challenging humanitarian mission ever undertaken by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) anywhere in the world. It has also been the single, largest intervention by any UN agency in post-quake Haiti. 

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake took Haiti, and the rest of the world, by surprise at 16:53 on Tuesday 12 January when many Haitians were getting ready to leave work or preparing for the evening ahead. The epicentre of the quake was less than 20 kilometres southwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince. In approximately 35 seconds, much of the city was reduced to ruins. As news of the quake spread round the world, it became clear that a cataclysm of major proportions had taken place. The government of Haiti appealed for international assistance. WFP – active in the country since 1969 – responded with the launch of an Emergency Operation to bring assistance to some two million people in the quake zone.

In approximately
35 seconds,
much of the city
was reduced to ruins

The Haitian earthquake was not the first disaster that WFP, or other UN agencies, had had to confront in the region. In 2004, a devastating hurricane ripped through the Caribbean island that comprises Haiti and, to its east, the Dominican Republic. The damage was terrible, as was the death toll. Again in 2008, a series of storms and hurricanes struck Haiti; the impact on this vulnerable nation of 13 million people was huge, particularly in Gonaives, which was inundated by huge volumes of rainwater and mud that ran off the surrounding hills and flooded the town.

Emergency Response
Haiti was still recovering from the trauma of 2008 – and already had some 1.9 million people without a secure supply of food - when the January 12 earthquake convulsed the area around the capital and its hinterland.

It took weeks for the full scale of the devastation to become clear. In the last week of February, the President of Haiti estimated the death toll from the quake to be as high as 300,000, with about one million people made homeless. Their houses were destroyed or so badly damaged that they dared not re-occupy them as the after-shocks continued for weeks.

The main focus of relief efforts was on the capital Port-au-Prince, home to 2.5 million people before the quake. Search and rescue teams with sniffer dogs managed to rescue scores of trapped people while bodies were removed for burial. Survivors took refuge in some 300 spontaneously erected settlements around the city. In the initial phase of WFP’s response, emergency rations – mostly high-energy biscuits, either stocked in-country for hurricane relief or flown in from WFP’s Humanitarian Response Depot in Panama – were delivered to the inhabitants of these encampments. Some consisted of up of hundreds of people, while others such as the Champ de Mars in central Port-au-Prince hosted thousands of people.

Logistical Challenges
Every January morning following the quake, WFP’s trucks set off from our warehouses loaded with staff and volunteers. The convoys, accompanied by escorts from the multi-national MINUSTAH force present in Haiti since 2004, fanned out daily around the city and further afield to towns like Leogane which was particularly badly damaged – nearly every building collapsed and most of the population was forced to camp in public spaces.

Priority was given to rehabilitation work on the capital’s port but, in the very early stages, most aid supplies were flown in to the international airport. At one end of the airport lies the UN Logistics Base where WFP and most other UN and humanitarian organisations relocated in the aftermath of the quake. Other urgent relief supplies were brought in by road from the neighbouring Dominican Republic where WFP established a regional logistics hub. In all, five aid corridors – land, air and sea – were in use by WFP before the end of January. As has become established practice in major emergencies, WFP was asked to provide, from the outset, both the logistics capacity and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) support for the humanitarian community at large.

The mobile distributions of those first few weeks targeted as many camps as possible in the face of considerable logistical and other constraints – sometimes, distribution only reached a handful of settlements while, on other days, 10 or more were served. It soon became clear that this disaster presented an extreme challenge to WFP and the other UN agencies. Never before had we had to mount an operation in such a degraded urban environment, amidst such devastating damage to infrastructure and to the operational capacity of government and other institutions. Despite these huge challenges, most distributions were orderly and emergency supplies reached the places where they were most needed.

Within a week of the quake, WFP had also started delivering ‘dry rations’ – rice, beans, oil, sugar and salt – to hospitals and children’s homes around the capital. One of these homes was Notre Dame de la Nativité where more than 50 children had been crushed to death – nearly 80 survived and were moved to the grounds of a neighbouring building.

Never before had
we had to mount an
operation in such a
degraded urban

The next phase saw a massive scale-up of WFP’s relief operation: general distributions of two-week rice rations from 16 fixed sites in the capital and two on its outskirts. The coupon-based initiative was undertaken in partnership with the Government, municipal authorities and NGO partners. The US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and MINUSTAH peacekeeping personnel provided security at the distribution points. The intervention, which stabilised the price of imported rice in the local market, reached some three million beneficiaries with nearly 12,500 tonnes of rice in three weeks.

During the second week in February, WFP – in conjunction with the Government, sister UN agencies and aid organisations – launched a nutrition drive for pregnant and breast-feeding women, and children aged under five. Three-week rations of high-energy biscuits and sachets of Supplementary Plumpy (ready-to-use food for under-threes), were handed out from the backs of trucks to coupon-carrying beneficiaries from the capital’s camps. The measure was designed to prevent malnutrition, a real danger in these makeshift settlements.

A Brighter Future
The one-month anniversary of the quake was marked by a national day of prayer in Haiti. For WFP, it was also the occasion to partner the Government in announcing the rollout of a long-term food- and cash-based recovery strategy to help quake victims rebuild their lives. Food-for-Work schemes, already a significant feature of WFP’s pre-quake programme, would be re-launched and expanded in rural Haiti; the schemes would also be introduced to damaged urban areas where debris needed to be cleared and drainage systems restored.

Though schools in much of the country re-opened in the weeks after the disaster, they remained closed in Port-au-Prince and the vicinity of the quake zone. WFP was determined to re-activate its hot meals programme for the capital’s school children without delay. The programme began before the end of February; once fully up-and-running, it should be reaching as many as 60,000 children from some 170 schools.

From early March, WFP’s food assistance activities in Port-au-Prince focused increasingly on the most vulnerable in the camps. At the same time, WFP ramped up its assistance to outlying areas where an estimated half a million people city-dwellers settled in the weeks following the earthquake. Their arrival has placed additional pressures on already food-insecure rural households – the main target of WFP’s pre-quake operations.

In the months ahead, WFP’s focus will be on laying the nutritional foundation for the country’s long-term rehabilitation and recovery.

David Orr has recently served as a WFP Public Information officer in Haiti. He was posted to Haiti twice last year. He has also worked for WFP in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Lebanon.

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