Hard to give away food

Credit: John Venneman, Special

Credit: John Venneman, Special

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Food is pouring into Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but getting it through the streets of the crumbled capital and to scores of hungry and homeless Haitians remains a nearly insurmountable challenge.

Even U.S.-based food companies with meat, wheat and flour operations in the country are having difficulty both with governmental red tape and in some cases, simply getting to the food they have.

Meanwhile, fears of food shortages are making people increasingly desperate.

John R. Venneman, a marine surveyor from Atlanta who was sent into Haiti to assess the damage at a flour mill north of the capital, found a ruined operation and depressing irony: tons and tons of food in storage in a starving country.

The mill, Les Moulins d’Haiti, has 1,650 tons of flour and another 15,000 tons of wheat on hand. The mill’s owners want to give that food away, but there is no simple way to do that. It is unclear which of the aid agencies working in Haiti should get the food, Venneman said, and the flour is welcome, but not the raw wheat.

In addition, simply transporting the food to a distribution point is dangerous.

“It’s a ‘who’s on first, what’s on second,’ ” Venneman said Monday before his flight back to Atlanta from Santo Domingo.

Despite cooperation among the aid groups, difficulties remain.

“They don’t want [raw] whole wheat, they want white flour,” he said. “The problem is with the mill being destroyed, the only way you could mill it is with a hammer mill. Here’s a bunch of wheat that’s just sitting in storage.”

The increasingly desperate need for food was evident in Port-au-Prince’s Delmas neighborhood and the cities of Carrefour and Jacmel, the hardest-hit areas.

At the entrance of one unpaved side street in Delmas, residents pleaded for help on a hand-marked, cardboard sign.

“Nou bezwen assistance. Nou bezwen mangé et de l’eau.” — “We need assistance. We need food and water,” the sign read in Haitian Creole.

While the logistics of getting food and water on a mass scale are still being hammered out by the international government and nongovernment relief agencies on the ground, security is a growing concern.

The central prison in Port-au-Prince, which housed about 5,000 inmates, collapsed in the earthquake, with most prisoners escaping, said Sophie Perez, Haiti director for Atlanta-based CARE, one of the relief agencies in the country.

And despite peacekeeping patrols by United Nations and Haiti police forces, violence is on the increase.

Outside CARE’s gated compound in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétion-Ville, sporadic shots could be heard some nights.

CARE officials were advising their workers and journalists staying at the compound not to be out on the streets after dark.

The government has been repeatedly warning people via local radio stations to stay away from their homes if they were destroyed. But those warnings mainly go unheeded because of fears of growing looting.

Mireille Sylvain, a CARE worker, whose three-story apartment building was destroyed, said looters had already taken all the food from her refrigerator in the rubble by the time she was able to get there two days after the quake.

Looting fears have led to companies hiring private security firms to protect property, said Venneman, who works for Braemar Marine in Atlanta and assesses property damage claims for insurance companies.

The mill he visited, a unit of Kansas-based Seaboard Corp., hired five armed guards to provide security against people armed with machetes as Venneman did his initial assessment of the damages.

While he did not see much of the hard-hit areas, he estimated that the losses will be astronomical.

“It’s easily going to be in the multiple billions,” he said. “You have a capital city that no longer exists, so everything that went in there — from food to couches — that’s all gone.”

The mill, which employed more than 450, according to the Haitian Center of Facilitation of Investments, is trying to make arrangements through representatives in Washington, to give away the wheat and flour.

“The biggest issue from an insurance standpoint is going to be security,” Venneman said, adding the damage to the mill is easily in the millions and will likely take more than a year to rebuild.

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