Friday, January 22

Haiti Crisis: Questions about aid distribution network (UPDATED 3 X)

CNN has released the video of Sanjay Gupta's visit to the airport yesterday to collect medical supplies, and which I discuss at length in this post. The CNN website also provides a summary of the report, including quotes from Col. Ben McMullen:
U.S. military personnel in a warehouse tent at the airport gave Gupta a trash bag full of supplies to take back to a hospital he had visited earlier but couldn't explain why there seemed to be no organized system for distribution.

"There is stuff here waiting to be taken out, that's a true statement," said Air Force Col. Ben McMullen, deputy commander of the Joint Special Operations Air Component. "Is it a lot? I can't speak to it. I will tell you the reason you got it is that everyone on this side, specifically the U.S. government side, is dedicated to getting as much stuff outside as they can. ... [CNN's ellipses, not mine]

"It's a shame, because you would hope that everything could get out there within seconds. But that kind of infrastructure just isn't in place."
The Port Odyssey

I'm going to have to eat a little crow -- just a wing mind you, not the whole bird -- about my smug remarks yesterday in defense of Brigadier General Mike Dana's optimistic remark on January 19 that the pier in Port au Prince would be open in "two or three days." The port did reopen yesterday but this seems to be a finger pier, not the main pier, from what John Batchelor reported on his January 21 show during the closing segment (12:50 AM ET). And it's a pretty rickety finger pier at that, from a Channel News Asia report today:
... gaping fissures still slice through the pier where ships unload, and it wobbles during each of the terrifying aftershocks that have succeeded the original temblor.

"It's not good. It's a very unstable platform at this point," US Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Mike Pierno told AFP.

US Navy and US Army divers were due to start repairing the pier Friday -- work that was expected to last at least several weeks -- while US Coast Guard and Haitian officials will ensure it is not overused.

"Right now it's in a state where it can be repaired and we don't want to do any more damage," Pierno said.
And talk I picked up from a CNN reporter yesterday afternoon about a "south" pier seems, after I took in a different CNN report, to refer to one part of the same pier -- although I'm not entirely clear on this point and my reading of five reports filed by other news organizations didn't help clarify.

So what I'm going to do is delegate discussion of the technical aspects of the port problems to Batchelor. If he blogs on the situation today I'll link to it; otherwise you can listen to the podcast of his closing segment, which should be posted soon at the WABC radio website archives.

However, I will not resist passing along General Dana's latest prediction, from the same report I linked to above; I figure that given he's in charge of logistics for the US operation in Haiti, he's not making this stuff up out of whole cloth:
"The port is probably at 30 per cent of its capacity right now. After 21 days it will be at full capacity."
Well, from the accounts I've read it seems to be operating at 10 percent capacity as of yesterday. Anyhow, if the capacity gets up to 50 percent in a month I'll consider that great progress and be overjoyed if it's higher. Dana also said that fuel would be shipped to the port this weekend.

Sanjay Gupta's Airport Adventure

The good news is that 10 (or 30) percent port capacity is better than nothing.
Agencies can pick up their supplies directly from the port. It's not clear from the report I just saw on CNN whether all the supplies are picked up, or whether some are trucked to the airport for distribution from there.
The bad news is that there's still a distribution bottleneck at the airport; I doubt UN and U.S. officials can continue denying this after they see Dr Sanjay Gupta's report last night for CNN, which was filmed earlier in the day. Here's my summary of the report for a correspondent:

"Sanjay Gupta was at a hospital that had no medicine. So he walks to the airport, which takes him about 10 minutes, and there's maybe 100 people -- he thinks they might be from aid agencies, trying to get authorization or waiting to pick up supplies -- behind a chain link fence; they're looking onto the airfield.

Gupta walks to the terminal with his cameraman; he tells the camera it takes him 5 minutes to get through the checkpoint. Then he walks onto the airfield. Camera shows pallets stacked up.

Soldier walks up to him, Sanjay asks can he look through pallets for basic medical supplies? Soldier says sure, but takes him to a small tent. (There are a few other small tents nearby). Camera isn't allowed to follow him into the tent. Cut.

Next part shows Gupta walking out of the tent holding a small plastic trash bag full of medicine bottles -- wide-spectrum antibiotics, painkiller, etc. He delivers bag to hospital.

He also interviews Ben McMullen, Col. USAF, who is in charge of -- something -- at the airport; didn't catch his title or it wasn't mentioned.

McMullen is obviously under pressure about how to answer Gupta's questions: Who's in charge of distribution network and why the bottleneck? McMullen says in essence he feels everyone's pain, military doing best they can, plenty of supplies have been delivered.

To be fair the stacked pallets on the airfield are not a forest; clearly offloaded supplies are being delivered. But McMullen's remarks sound evasive to my ears, and there was no activity at the airfield to load the waiting pallets onto delivery trucks while Gupta was there.

Weren't USAID and UN, or one or the other, supposed to be in charge of supply distribution?"
A few minutes ago Sanjay Gupta elaborated on his experience at the airport yesterday and CNN re-broadcast some of the same footage of him at the airport. Gupta explained that there was some kind system in place; agencies get an authorization number to pick up their designated relief supplies from the airport but the system has obviously not been working well. And from a second look at the footage: while it isn't a forest there were more pallets stacked at the airport than I took in during the first viewing. Gupta also said that Col. McMullen was clearly frustrated with the bottleneck. However, I stick by my original impression that he was speaking evasively. So my guess is that he's not tasked to discuss the distribution system at any length because it wasn't created by the military.
Bad memories of FEMA

CBS reporter Peter King, filing yesterday from Port au Prince, backs up what Gupta's airport adventure showed:
There is still no good distribution system for food, water or anything else. I’m absolutely floored by this. We’re told that supplies are arriving daily. We see and hear the huge cargo planes landing, but we have no idea who’s running the show, nor where all of these supplies are actually going. I may be going out on a limb here, but from what I’ve seen, this operation makes Brownie’s FEMA response to Katrina look like a crowning achievement in emergency response. That’s how bad it is.
In some places the distribution is great. According to what USAID head Dr Rajiv Shah said yesterday, there are now 300 food/ water distribution sites in the stricken areas. And according to one report I saw yesterday on CNN or Fox, U.S. helicopters are making runs every 10 minutes to drop supplies at the golf course in Port au Prince, where several thousand homeless Haitians are camped.

However, one reporter after another, from one news organization after another, is making basically the same observation that Gupta and King make. And I saw several TV interviews yesterday with aid agency and hospital people around the city that report the same. There is no question there are serious problems with the supply distribution network and that it's still unclear who's in charge of the operation.

The situation is becoming critical with regard to medical supplies because as the days wear on the injured survivors are becoming more and more ill, and developing a host of additional health problems without adequate medical treatment.

Rajiv Shah

At the same time Rajiv Shah is having praise heaped on him for his leadership of USAID during the Haiti relief operation. Dr Shah was sworn in as head of USAID just five days before the Haiti earthquake.

Several months ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nearly got her wrists slapped for asking in public when President Obama was going to get around to nominating someone to fill the empty post at USAID. This was after she'd tried with no success behind closed doors to get Obama moving on the nomination. And it wasn't until November that Obama came up with a nominee.

As to Dr Shah's qualification to lead USAID, the funny thing is there's no way to tell whether his credentials would suit him to lead the agency. That's because the USAID mission is murky and it's been so for years. Let us hope that Dr Shah, to whatever degree he's responsible for the distribution of supplies in Haiti, is able to quickly streamline the distribution system.

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