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As Tropical Storm Tomas Bears Down, Another Obstacle Stalls $1B In U.S. Aid For Haiti

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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.

Still, requirements like these can hold up aid money for years. Some of the millions promised by President George W. Bush to help Mexico fight drug cartels still hasn't been released because of conditions that U.S. lawmakers put on that aid.

"There is no question we should do everything we can to assist our neighbors in Haiti," Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma wrote in an Oct. 8 letter explaining why he objects to quick approval of the bill Kerry and Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker wrote to authorize the spending. Haiti must first commit to fighting corruption, and any additional Haiti spending must come only at the expense of other State Department programs, Coburn said.

"I do not object to fulfilling our pledge to assist Haiti recover. However, I believe our charity today should not come at the expense of the next generation," Coburn wrote in the letter, addressed to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"Therefore, any additional aid we provide must be paid for with cuts to lower priority programs elsewhere within the federal government's bloated $3.7 trillion annual budget."

Crowley said the Obama administration has no objection to requiring that Haiti demonstrate "a commitment to accountability by removing corrupt officials, implementing fiscal transparency and other necessary reforms of government institutions, and facilitating active public engagement in governance and oversight of public resources."

"We completely agree" that Haitians should account for how U.S. taxpayer money is spent, Crowley said. "Which is why we have worked with Haiti and the international community to make sure that ... the assistance we provide meets the genuine needs of the Haitian people, supports the plan that Haiti has developed and has the desired impact."

As Republicans and Democrats point fingers in Washington, some contractors are giving up on reconstruction projects that depended on the money.

For months after the quake, U.S. officials met with contractors to discuss how to apply for the aid money, with plans for building everything from model homes to sanitation systems that could have prevented outbreaks of waterborne diseases like cholera.

Jeff Cazeau, a Haitian-American procurement attorney in Miami, went to about a dozen of these sessions in Port-au-Prince, Washington and Miami, representing clients wanting to build housing, install solar-powered cell phone towers and put in roads.

"But then absolutely nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. The frustration level just got higher and higher and higher," he said. "At some point it became pretty evident that nothing was going to happen and I had to get back to my regular law practice."

The human costs have been severe, Cazeau said.

"Now you've got a cholera epidemic, a hurricane bearing down on the place, people are living in the roadway medians, in city parks. It's just misery after misery after misery and none of this should have come as a surprise. Everyone was saying back in January that we need to get on this."

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Mendoza reported from Santa Cruz, California. Associated Press Writer Desmond O. Butler contributed from Washington.