'Final' obstacle stalls $1.15 billion in U.S. aid for Haiti

By Jonathan M. Katz and Martha Mendoza

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Nov. 8 2010 9:32 p.m. MST

Haitians wait to be evacuated from a refugee camp.

Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As if Haitians living in tents and under scraps of plastic don't have enough to grapple with as a tropical storm bears down and cholera spreads, the U.S. Congress has put up another obstacle to delivering the $1.15 billion in reconstruction money it promised back in March.

The State Department still has to prove the money won't be stolen or misused — not an easy task in a country notorious for corruption.

"Given the weak governmental institutions that existed in Haiti even before the earthquake, Congress wants to be sure we have that accountability in place before these funds are obligated," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Associated Press.

Crowley had no immediate estimate Wednesday for how long this bureaucratic step — known as a Section 1007 proceeding — will take to complete, but said it would be "very soon."

Haiti aid organizers had hoped to avoid this. While the country has a reputation for corruption, measures were put in place — including a reconstruction oversight commission co-chaired by former President Bill Clinton — to ensure such concerns would not hold up the money.

It has been nearly 10 months since Haiti's capital was leveled by an earthquake that killed at least 230,000 and left millions homeless. Seven months have also gone by since Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised $1.15 billion in reconstruction money for Haiti meant to build homes, create jobs and improve lives.

Separately, an immediate $1.1 billion in U.S. humanitarian assistance was spent in Haiti without having to go through this proceeding. Some of it went to emergency rescue and medical care, and some to expenses like travel and support for aid workers immediately after the quake. That kind of aid continues — the USS Iwo Jima was steaming toward Haiti Thursday to provide more relief after the storm.

But without the reconstruction money, Haiti's long-term needs remain unaddressed: Temporary shelters have gone unbuilt, rubble has not been removed and some 1.3 million people remain homeless in and around the capital, unable to find or afford safe places to live. The cholera outbreak has killed more than 440 people and sickened thousands, spreading too quickly to be contained.

Now aid groups are rushing to protect the fragile tent camps where an estimated 1.3 million people live ahead of Tropical Storm Tomas, which forecasters said could regain hurricane strength by Friday and dump up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain. Haitian civil protection officials advised all camp residents to find other shelter, but most have nowhere to go.

Any significant rainfall could cause widespread flooding in the severely deforested country, with the storm expected to strike nearly every part of the nation of 10 million.

"As Haiti faces another natural disaster and is still reeling from the recent cholera outbreak, this is not the time to delay assistance," Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who sponsored the aid bill, told the AP on Thursday.

In September, an AP investigation revealed that not one penny of the promised U.S. reconstruction money had arrived, due to a combination of bureaucracy, disorganization and a lack of urgency in Washington.

President Barack Obama wasn't able to sign the appropriations bill containing the money until July 29. A subsequent bill to authorize release of the funds stalled, and it took until Sept. 20 for the Obama administration to submit a spending plan in an attempt to free up the money.

Crowley told the AP "there has not been a delay," describing the 1007 notification as the final piece of a process that has kept to a schedule laid out in the aid bill.

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