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Press Conference on Situation in Haiti

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

11 February 2010

Nearly one month after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rattled Haiti and levelled most of its densely-packed capital, Port-au-Prince, the United Nations ‑‑ with much of the world body’s staff working out of tents and a few sleeping in their cars ‑‑ finally had a clear picture of the breadth of the devastation, and was racing to ramp up the massive recovery and reconstruction effort ahead of the coming rainy season, senior peacekeeping officials said today.

In a press conference at Headquarters this morning, Alain Le Roy, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations said that Friday marked one month since the 12 January quake, and gave reporters the latest figures compiled by the United Nations and the Haitian Government to highlight the magnitude of the tragedy: in a nation of around 8 million people, more than 3 million had been affected by the quake in some way. More than 210,000 people had been killed and some 300,000 had been injured. More than half a million people had been displaced and were seeking shelter in towns and provinces near Port-au-Prince.

The United Nations had been hit particularly hard, suffering the collapse of its headquarters and the deadliest toll on a peacekeeping mission in the world body’s history. He said the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) had been “totally decapitated”, losing its Chief, Hédi Annabi, and second-in-command, Luiz Carlos da Costa, in the quake. Further, 94 of its staff had been confirmed dead, and seven remained unaccounted for. He added that two staff from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had also been confirmed dead in the days following the quake.

Praising MINUSTAH for continuing to work effectively in “extremely difficult” conditions from tents outside a makeshift office at the United Nations logistic base, Mr. Le Roy said that, despite some isolated incidents in the wake of the earthquake, the security situation was calm overall. Recalling that the Security Council had authorized the deployment of 3,500 more troops and police to bolster the Mission, he was pleased to report that MINUSTAH had received pledges to cover that request. He also said that, while the Mission would continue to cooperate with other actors on the ground, “we are keeping an eye on our original mandate” of ensuring security, stability and long-term development for Haiti, including strengthening institutions and promoting the rule of law.

Indeed, Brazil was today dispatching 900 military personnel, and Japan was sending 190 personnel, including engineers. He said that more troops and civilian staff would shortly be deployed from, among others, Latin American countries and the Republic of Korea and India. In addition, police reinforcements were coming from Italy, France and Bangladesh.

Mr. Le Roy refuted reports that Haiti’s national police had effectively vanished after the quake, saying that perhaps 80 per cent of the force was back on the job and officers were patrolling the streets regularly, despite the fact that the police headquarters had collapsed. On other security matters, he said both MINUSTAH and United States military forces were sharing the responsibility of manning the 16 food distribution centres in the capital. He added that MINUSTAH was also enjoying excellent cooperation with military personnel from Canada, Brazil and elsewhere.

Joining the press conference via video link from Port-au-Prince, MINUSTAH’s acting chief, Edmond Mulet, said while “everything here is urgent”, the expected heavy rainy season had begun with an overnight downpour, and was certain to add more problems, just as new signs of normal life were beginning to tentatively take hold. There had already been a few mudslides, and the United Nations was “very worried” that houses and other buildings weakened by the earthquake would collapse and slide onto the more than 65 million tons of rubble that already needed to be removed. The coming rains had also made the need to rapidly expand the ongoing vaccination programme even more important, he said. Responding to a question, Mr. Le Roy added that the European Union had agreed to dispatch a team of military engineers to bring in strong shelters that could withstand the region’s heavy rains and winds.

Turning to the humanitarian effort, Mr. Mulet said the “logistical nightmare” that had characterized the days immediately following the quake was largely over. Responding to questions, he said the number of relief aid flights into Haiti had dropped from 160 to 74 per day, thanks mostly to the opening of humanitarian corridors from the Dominican Republic. It had also helped that the United States had stepped up its management and reconstruction of Haiti’s main port, which was now able to handle some 350 containers per day. The number of incoming containers of relief supplies could go as high 1,500 a day, when reconstruction of the port was finally completed.

He said UNDP’s two-week-old “cash-for-work” programme, which had kick-started the rubble and waste removal effort, had hired more than 35,000 people, mostly women and teenagers. The aim was to hire as many as 100,000 people over the next few weeks, depending on the availability of funds. “So life is slowly coming back to [ Port-au-Prince],” he said, noting that garbage was being picked up, and gas stations and markets were opening for business. What was important now was to reach farther into the country and, to that end, Bill Clinton, United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti, was planning to send the first shipment of light pick-up trucks, intended for sub-distribution points in outlying provinces.

Both Mr. Mulet and Mr. Le Roy expressed their concern about the whereabouts and activities of some 5,000 prison inmates escaped from the collapsed main prison in Port-au-Prince in the wake of the earthquake. Mr. Mulet said rape cases had increased in camps for internally displaced people, which local authorities said were carried out by escaped criminals. Moreover, he said there were reports that criminals were setting up roadblocks and fake tolls along the roads, and that in the chaos that followed the quake, a few national police uniforms had been stolen and were now being worn by criminals.

Further, some of the escapees had been gang leaders and there were signs that many were attempting to regroup and take over outlying provinces. He told one correspondent that there were reports that turf wars among competing gangs had broken out in several towns. But, none had been able to make any headway beyond that, because local communities had been fighting back by informing the police and MINUSTAH about their whereabouts and activities. Though the pictures of most of the escapees had been distributed widely, only about 200 had been captured thus far and he feared that all the work that had gone into convicting them and imprisoning them over the past three years would have to start all over again.

As for the working conditions of United Nations staff, Mr. Mulet said that some 400 people were crammed into the world body’s logistics base near the airport in Port-au-Prince. At night, many slept on mattresses in the very offices they worked out of during the day. Some were sleeping in cars, he said, adding that there were only three showers and few toilets. At the same time, the closeness had been a source of inspiration, and the United Nations staff, along with relief workers from civil society groups, had been energized by the ongoing effort to not just get the world body back on its feet, but help the Government and people of Haiti.

To a question about the extent of the Government’s involvement in the broader recovery and reconstruction effort, he said key officials were working with the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment team and plans were in the works to link the outcome of that survey to immediate recovery and long-term development goals identified by the Government. Plans were also under way to identify a structure to manage the long-term effort, and “since everybody in the international community seemed to want to do everything at the same time”, the Haitian Government was considering a geographical distribution of tasks, or allocating tasks based on a particular theme.

As examples, he said perhaps one country would be allowed to “adopt” one hard hit province or city, or even an important commercial area in Port-au-Prince. “That way, agencies won’t be tripping over each other doing similar things,” he said, adding that donors could also consider targeting specific needs of the Haitian Government.

A critical deficiency was that Haiti had no national civil registry or property registry, and he hoped one donor could take up the effort to create those records and put in place a mechanism to maintain them. Haiti also needed modern roads and bridges and other critical infrastructure that had been lacking even before the quake. He also hoped donors would prioritize funding for Haiti’s education sector, which had been particularly hard hit. He noted that more than 4,000 students had been killed the day of the earthquake, some 1,300 schools destroyed and more than 2,000 had been damaged.

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For information media • not an official record

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