GONAIVES, Haiti — While desperately hungry flood victims wander the streets of Gonaives searching for help, tons of food aid is piling up in a warehouse guarded by U.N. peacekeepers.
The repeated looting of relief trucks has made it difficult to get sacks of wheat, lentils and other foodstuffs stacked in the warehouse out to those who need it most, aid workers say.
“The problem is not a lack of food. It’s security and a lack of trucks,” Ricardo Mena, an official of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said Thursday.
About 1,500 tons of food aid remains in a warehouse run by the aid group CARE International and guarded by U.N. troops, CARE spokesman Rick Perera said.
But some residents are growing impatient with humanitarian groups, which are stretched thin as they try to cope with the aftermath of Tropical Storm Jeanne, which left more than 1,500 dead and some 900 missing, many of whom are presumed dead.
About 200,000 of Gonaive’s 250,000 residents are homeless.
U.N. troops have fired shots in the air and smoke grenades to try to keep order while aid workers hand out food. Troops have dragged looters off trucks, some of them shouting back, “We’re hungry!” Haiti’s powerless police force says gangs are breaking into people’s homes at night to steal food.
The United Nations has 750 peacekeepers in Gonaives, and the entire force in Haiti only numbers 3,000 — well below the 8,000 promised when it took over from U.S. Marines in June.
Aid workers said the situation in Gonaives remains tense, with angry residents still facing off with troops.
“The aid workers aren’t doing enough to help. They’re not even coming to the communities where there are problems with gangs,” said Rony Coq, 30, himself a member of the Bottle Army gang that operates in Cassolet.
Cassolet is a slum still feet-deep in feces-contaminated mud spewed after a 30-hour pounding by Tropical Storm Jeanne shattered the sewer system nearly two weeks ago.
Bad roads make it worse
The problems are compounded by damaged and flooded roads, which slow the aid trucks that do get out.
“There is not a lack of food in Gonaives,” said Guy Gavreau, the U.N. agency’s director in Haiti. He said the security problem was being solved and very soon “most of the people in Gonaives will have food.”
Relief workers now have four food distribution centers in Gonaives, giving out some 80 tons a day, Mena said.
Perera said CARE has distributed more than 466 tons of food aid to more than 100,000 people, and has stepped up the pace since the United Nations sent reinforcements over the weekend.
Aid groups also are working to provide 40,000 gallons of water a day at kiosks throughout the city, Perera said.
“We had seven trucks (of aid) come in today. You can’t just throw it out in the streets. You’ve got to have proper security and logistics in place,” Perera said. “Security is constantly improving and as a result we are able to distribute more and more each day.”
Aid workers in the small towns
Aid workers also are fanning out into smaller northwestern towns with doctors and relief supplies, though the main city there, Port-de-Paix, with a population of about 45,000, can be reached only by air because of flood-damaged roads, Perera said.
Residents worry that acute long-term needs for food, water and medical help will not be met.
“The foreigners are here now, but soon they’ll be gone, and then what do we do?” worried Maxilia Talma, a 43-year-old resident of Gonaives.
The storm ravaged an estimated 24,700 acres of the most fertile land in Haiti, with mud covering the area that produces up to 40 percent of the bananas, beans and sweet potatoes consumed in the country, agronomist Jean-Andre Victor told The Associated Press this week.
“If Haitian-international cooperation is slow to respond (to farmers’ needs), there is risk of famine in those regions,” Victor warned.
Bodies first, then the crops
Perera said CARE is rushing to provide seeds and tools to thousands of rural farmers before the planting season in October and November. But farmers in one community reachable only on foot said they could not plant until people helped them bury corpses clogging irrigation canals.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew visited Thursday and said he was encouraged by “major progress” in the transportation of aid.
The United Nations on Thursday launched an appeal for $30 million in emergency aid for Haiti.
This week, President Bush asked Congress for $50 million for storm-hit Caribbean countries, with about half for Haiti. On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy announced an emergency grant of $500,000 for health care, saying it was part of nearly $2 million in U.S. aid given since the storm.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.