Haitians mourn dead a month after quake

Thousands of Haitians crowded churches in the capital Friday for a national day of mourning a month after the magnitude-7.0 earthquake killed more than 200,000.

Food and shelter still lacking

People gather on the national day of mourning outside the damaged National Palace in Port-au-Prince, on Friday, one month after the 7.0-magnitude quake blamed for the deaths of 200,000 people. ((Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press))

Thousands of Haitians crowded churches in the capital of Port-au-Prince Friday for a national day of mourning a month after the magnitude-7.0 earthquake killed more than 200,000 and left the Caribbean country struggling for survival.

Parishioners filled churches in Port-au-Prince's Petionville suburb and set up loudspeakers so those in the streets could follow. Religious leaders gathered for an ecumenical ceremony near Haiti's shattered National Palace to pay their respects to the dead.

Haiti's President René Préval wept throughout the ceremony, his wife trying to console him. 

"The pain is too heavy — words cannot describe it," a tearful Préval said as he addressed the crowd.

Haiti's President René Préval, second from left, wipes his tears as he attends a national day of mourning ceremony along with his wife Elisabeth Debrosse Préval and Haiti's Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive, left, in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 12. ((Javier Galeano/Associated Press))
"Today, we, the Haitian people have to mourn our dead with dignity," Reuters quoted him as saying. Préval, like many in the crowd, wore a black armband.

Hymns and gospel music pumped throughout the city's apocalyptic landscape of flattened concrete and sloping buildings.

"This day is about honouring all those we lost and looking toward the future," said Percil St. Louis, 43, a Catholic. "We all need to come together as a nation."

A woman stands in a makeshift tent camp for earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince. ((Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press))

Food, shelter, security in crisis

As thousands honoured the dead, however, millions lack adequate food, shelter and security a month after the massive quake, problems sure to be exacerbated by Haiti's looming rainy season.

Food has yet to reach all of the three million people who need it. Infrastructure problems and supply backlogs continue to hamper an international aid effort that has drawn about $113 million from Canada alone. Schools remain closed.

And on Thursday morning, in a taste of the new horrors the impending rainy season promises to bring, an early-morning downpour muddied the dirt in which 1.2 million people have pitched a makeshift camp.

"Most people in the tent villages are still in tents made of sheets," said CBC reporter David Gutnick, from Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. "They just have little blue plastic tarps over them. There's nothing that really seals them in.

"They really need something substantial, because when those rains come — and they're expected to come in the next couple of weeks — those tent towns could be turned into a muddy mess."

Tent shortage

Downtown, hundreds of Haitians marched Thursday from the destroyed National Palace to the temporary government headquarters demanding the resignation of the presidentl, who has been largely out of sight since the catastrophe.

'Tents are great ... but they basically impede the process of economic development and reconstruction.'—Lewis Lucke, U.S. special co-ordinator for relief and reconstruction

They also protested the conditions in their tent camp, demanding the government provide them hundreds of thousands of tents that might protect them during the rainy season, which begins in April.

But on Wednesday, with just 49,000 of a requested 200,000 tents provided, officials announced that deliveries will stop. Foreign governments, aid groups and Haitian officials have decided that tents take up too much space and will not last long enough.

"Tents are great, they're a lot better than nothing, but they basically impede the process of economic development and reconstruction," said Lewis Lucke, the U.S. special co-ordinator for relief and reconstruction.

Instead, 250,000 families will get one sheet of plastic each between now and May 1, and will later receive temporary, earthquake-resistant structures of metal and wood. If those numbers hold up, they will help about 60 per cent of the population in need.

On Tuesday, at a conference in Montreal of 27 national Red Cross societies, Canada's minister of international co-operation, Bev Oda, urged aid groups working in Haiti should focus on shelter projects that might withstand the rainy season's often torrential downpours.

Some signs of progress

Amid the chaos and unmet needs, there are obvious signs of progress: The United Nations, itself devastated by the quake, has established a tent-and-trailer city on the airport grounds to co-ordinate the efforts of 900 aid agencies who finally appear to be overcoming huge problems with communications, transportation and infrastructure.

Cellphone coverage has vastly improved. Gas stations have reopened, though that has also meant traffic is back to its normal, intolerable state. Massive amounts of rubble are still everywhere — loaded into dump trucks, the convoy would stretch from Port-au-Prince to Moscow, officials said, but at least it has been pushed to the side of the road.

The once ubiquitous dead, and their overpowering smell, have largely been carried away.

With files from David Gutnick