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Press conference by Emergency Relief Coordinator on Haiti

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The four hurricanes that struck Haiti probably constituted the worst disaster in the country over the last 100 years, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said today, warning that the hurricane season still had six weeks to go and urging the international community to provide immediate relief.

During a press conference at Headquarters on his two-day trip to the country last week, Mr. Holmes described the situation in Gonaïves, six weeks after that city had been struck by a hurricane, as "dramatic and grim". There was a new lake outside of the city. Water had receded from most of the city, but people still had to deal with large amounts of mud. The main streets had been cleared, with the help of some bulldozers, but 30,000 people were still in shelters, mainly schools that were now closed to children. The conditions in those shelters were not good. People were returning to the city, but could not live in their houses. As initial delivery of assistance had been hampered by lack of access, roads were now open and helicopters were available.

He said of the initial flash appeal of $107 million, 40 per cent had been pledged. That was not enough. A revised appeal would be submitted in the coming few weeks, and a post-disaster assessment was under way.

The hurricanes in Haiti had provided a clear "disaster risk reduction message", he said. "It will happen again" if no urgent action was taken. There was a need for an early warning system, watershed management, reinforcement of river banks and reforestation. One should also look at relocating those people who lived below sea level in Gonaïves. All of that would necessitate hundreds of millions of dollars, but such a major investment would be worthwhile, as it would reduce the need for money in future disasters. Such an injection of money for labour-intensive projects would also boost Haiti's economy and prevent the country from sliding further into poverty.

Answering correspondents' questions, he said the current financial crisis was not the most favourable context he could imagine during which to launch an appeal. He had not yet seen an immediate impact yet, as the humanitarian budgets had already been decided upon. He hoped that, in the future, the humanitarian budgets of donor countries would be isolated from crises such as the current one. The fact that only 40 per cent of the flash appeal had been pledged might be because humanitarian needs elsewhere -- Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others -- were so great. Forty per cent was a "respectable response" to a flash appeal, and humanitarian pledges were nearly always honoured. This was not the time to decrease humanitarian budgets, but to increase them, he said.

Continuing, he said that $45 million out of the $107 had been pledged, with some countries donating outside of the appeal mechanism. The most urgent needs at the moment were food, clean water and sanitation, and shelters. Because local authorities were anxious to reopen the schools, people sheltered there should be moved elsewhere. The response in medical care had been reasonably good, and there had not been any epidemics.

The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) had responded extremely well to the aftermath of the disasters, especially during the initial stages. The Mission had a base in the city, and had the ability to move goods. It had mobilized all the resources it could. Assistance had been provided on the spot, and the people of Gonaïves had, for the most part, stayed put. There was no evidence of people going to the Dominican Republic.

Asked whether he was treating the situation in Cuba -- hit by two hurricanes -- the same way as he did the crisis in Haiti, Mr. Holmes said the two situations could hardly be compared. The Cuban preparedness had been extremely good, as the country had a good system for early warning and evacuation, although even that system had been sorely tested by the two hurricanes. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was responding the same to Haiti and Cuba on the basis of needs. Some $7 million to $8 million had been allocated to Cuba and some $10 million to Haiti. There was a plan to respond to the Cuban disaster that would require some $30 million to $40 million. At the moment, he had no intention of going to Cuba.

Answering another question, he said some organizations, including Rotary, had sheltered some people in tents, which was not an ideal situation in a hurricane-prone area. There was a need for some more robust type of temporary shelter. There were still some 36 schools occupied as shelter, but local authorities were keen to get children back to school. Of those schools, some were private, and they needed money. There was, therefore, a push to find other sites. Many people did not want to go back to their old dwellings, because they were completely destroyed or they were below sea level. They wanted to make a fresh start. Those people also needed help, although that was more a matter for the Government of Haiti.

The Office would not be much affected by the requirement that all United Nations departments cut 2 per cent of their budgets, he answered another question, as only 6 per cent of the Office's budget was provided for through the regular budget of the United Nations. The rest came through voluntary contributions.

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