Thousands find relief in fairway tent camp

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Thousands find relief in fairway tent camp

PORT-AU-PRINCE - Jean-Michel Frederick lives at the Petionville Club, near the golf course's ninth tee, with a grand view of the valley and the harbor.

That would have meant prestige a few weeks ago. Today it means sleeping with his family on the side of a hill inside a patchwork tent made of sticks and bed linens, wedged into a human collage of 30,000 fellow Haitians displaced by the earthquake.

"Of course, we do not choose to live here, but it is safe from the earthquake and the Americans are here," said Frederick, as he stood in line with his mother and a thousand others, clutching the green Catholic Relief Services ticket that promised his family a two-week supply of food. "This is the best we can hope for. We are blessed with this."
The scene could be taking place anywhere in Port-au-Prince - thousands of sweaty, dusty Haitians squeezed back-to-chest waiting for relief supplies that could determine whether they survive the next few weeks.

But in Petionville, a comparatively well-heeled suburb, the operation reveals more than just the colossal need that exists throughout post-earthquake Haiti. It shows how the disaster crossed boundaries of income and class, turning even the once-exclusive Petionville Club into a fetid expanse of desperation.

And it shows the enormous effort, involving governments, aid organizations and the U.S. military, that is required to satisfy the most basic of human needs in Haiti.

Roughly 400 members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division have taken over the club, using the restaurant as a headquarters and taking bucket baths on the bleachers by the tennis courts. A federal disaster-management team has set up a medical clinic on the putting green closest to the clubhouse, and the poolside cabana bar is serving as a pharmacy. The aid group Oxfam International is setting up 90 latrines along the fairways, part of a project to provide water and sanitation for the sprawling tent city.
Karen Ketchie, a disaster-management team leader from Jacksonville, Fla., who works at the club as part of a medical aid group, imagined that Gulf Coast hurricanes were good training for the Haitian relief effort - until she arrived in Petionville.

"There, the infrastructure is up and if we needed something, we could just go a few counties over," she said. "Here it's totally different. Everything you need is a challenge."

As Ketchie spoke near the club's half-empty pool, she was standing next to a sign that read: "Pillar collapse potential if aftershock. Do not stand here."

Managing one of the greatest challenges is Baltimore-based CRS, which is coordinating a multinational effort to distribute food that involves hundreds of workers and volunteers.

The effort begins in the United States, where the food is packed into 110-pound sacks by the U.S. Agency for International Development's Food for Peace program. Catholic Relief Services takes the sacks, each emblazoned with the American flag, to a warehouse in Haiti, then delivers four truckloads to the Petionville Club on each day of food distribution.

At the club, a team of 12 Haitian men hoists the sacks onto their shoulders and dumps them on a tarpaulin spread on the clay tennis courts. A team of Haitian women scoops the food into portions using old tomato cans and buckets, legs buried as they work like a sand-castle team on a beach of lentils.

Then the food is repacked into bags designed to feed a family of five for about two weeks. Each bag contains a sack of bulgur, a sack of lentils and a gallon can of vegetable oil, and weighs about 70 pounds.

"It's a basic emergency ration," said Donal Reilly, deputy director of emergency response at CRS. "You wouldn't order it off the menu, but it provides what people need. And they find ways of cooking it."

As often as not, that cooking, typically over a small wood or charcoal fire, produces little more than a paste or soft meal loaf, but CRS staff say such operations often last for several weeks before any complaints arise. Haitians interviewed at the camp said they were accustomed to cooking whatever was available, and many flocked to Petionville when they heard food was available.

Some said they came to the Petionville Club camp because of something else it offers: security. The United Nations handles food distribution at other sites in Haiti, but its workers often seem overmatched when violence breaks out as people fight over relief supplies.

"I think this place is the best place to share food. Better than the others," said Matthew Monvil, who was helping to guide the food lines. "It's not good, but it's better. Nothing is good in Haiti right now."

U.S. soldiers provide much of the labor in handing out sacks of food, and their presence imposes a sense of order. In the early days of the relief effort, Army officers learned to stop handing out supplies when the Petionville crowd got unruly, ordering troops to sit and wait. This happened two or three times a day; after about 10 minutes, order was typically restored.

"At first, we came here with weapons, just like any military mission. But once we got down here we realized there was very little threat," said Army Capt. Jon Hartsock, who was overseeing the food delivery operation Wednesday. "I think by their nature, the Haitian people don't understand lines the way that we do. But it hasn't been a problem since they started to realize that we were going to help everyone, that they were all going to get food."

PORT-AU-PRINCE - Relief workers have also sought to maintain safety by managing expectations in the camp. The actor Sean Penn arranged for the acquisition of a public address system used to tell camp residents when food and water are being distributed and to whom.

CRS workers devised a quota system designed to avoid a riot. They divided the camp into quarters, surveyed residents and identified the female head of each family, giving her a color-coded ticket that is good on a specific day for a two-week food supply.

Military and relief workers at the camp plan to use a similar system for their next challenge: improving the living spaces. The homemade tents afford little privacy, much less shelter, which will become increasingly important as the seasons turn and rain begins.

Tent and tarp distribution efforts have touched off violence in other parts of Haiti, but the food distribution process in Petionville offered little glimpse of that.

The soldiers and Haitian coordinators let families come forward a few at a time, to climb the former golf course with their tickets to the bottom of a plastic slide used by the Army to deliver food bags close to the tent camps.

In most cases, the woman with the ticket was followed by a young man who would throw the 70-pound sack onto his back and walk down to the dusty camp. Sometimes, the family matriarch would heave the food bag atop her head and trudge alone back to her family.

"I really admire the Haitian people," Reilly said. "They're tough, even though they've been through a lot.

"When we're finished we'll know that, worst case, everyone in the camp has two weeks of food. And that will be a great improvement."

Source: The Baltimore Sun Medical News

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