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U.S. ambassador to Haiti: “There’s a great deal of frustration among people here”

Problems with food distribution and infrastructure, rather than a lack of food supplies, are responsible for rising unrest on the ground in Haiti, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten (the man looking into the camera at right) told The Cable in a phone interview from Port-au-Prince. “The amount of food we have is sufficient; the issue is ...

574037_100127_merten2.jpg
574037_100127_merten2.jpg

Problems with food distribution and infrastructure, rather than a lack of food supplies, are responsible for rising unrest on the ground in Haiti, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten (the man looking into the camera at right) told The Cable in a phone interview from Port-au-Prince.

"The amount of food we have is sufficient; the issue is getting it out to people in a form they can most easily use and eat and getting it to certain distribution points in sufficient numbers," he said.

Merten confirmed that on Monday Brazilian personnel used tear gas on a crowd of Haitians at a food-distribution point. He said that aid groups were reevaluating the system for how much food to send where.

Problems with food distribution and infrastructure, rather than a lack of food supplies, are responsible for rising unrest on the ground in Haiti, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten (the man looking into the camera at right) told The Cable in a phone interview from Port-au-Prince.

“The amount of food we have is sufficient; the issue is getting it out to people in a form they can most easily use and eat and getting it to certain distribution points in sufficient numbers,” he said.

Merten confirmed that on Monday Brazilian personnel used tear gas on a crowd of Haitians at a food-distribution point. He said that aid groups were reevaluating the system for how much food to send where.

“People need to understand there’s a great deal of frustration among people here,” Merten said. “They have to wait longer. Their anger is understandable; it’s unfortunate.”

He also said he completely shared Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s sentiment that she “deeply resented” criticisms by other countries about the military face of the U.S. relief effort.

“The fact of the matter is the military is here because they have the immediate capability to bring humanitarian aid to the area,” Merten elaborated. “They’re close, they have the capability, that’s why they are here.”

“I would suggest that other countries maybe haven’t thought that through.”

The number of flights landing at the Haiti airport has actually gone down recently, but that’s not due to a decrease in demand, according to Merten. There has been a rise in “no shows” — planes that asked for landing clearance but then for whatever reason missed their appointed slots. U.S. Southern Command is still running the airport, but coordinating flight priorities with USAID and the U.N., he added.

Food distribution is the top mission right now, but in a few days that will shift to increasing the amount of temporary shelter. It’s been fortunate for the relief effort that not much rain has fallen since the earthquake, but that luck won’t last forever, Merten said.

It will still be several weeks, however, before any plans for large-scale reconstruction will be developed. The U.S. is evacuating orphans by the hundreds and the main challenges there are linking up the orphans with the correct foster families and making sure they really are orphans in the first place.

Overall, the aid mission is hampered most by poor roads and facilities that weren’t in good shape in the past, but are now also covered in rubble. It takes an hour to travel just 5 miles, Merten said, and traffic congestion is horrendous.

“The infrastructure is a huge limitation here and there’s a lack of appreciation of what the infrastructure challenges here are and were even before the crisis occurred.”

There are now 56 confirmed American deaths in Haiti and 36 more reported but not confirmed. One embassy official, four local hires, and three dependents of U.S. government employees have perished since the crisis began.

JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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