B. Clinton draws crowds as UN envoy to Haiti

Bill Clinton on Tuesday took his Haiti relief effort to this battered seaside city that was nearly destroyed last year by a series of tropical storms, finding a mud-caked maze of partially rebuilt homes and shops.

Clinton, the new special U.N. envoy to Haiti, viewed river control projects and visited a hospital that served as an emergency shelter during the two storms that ravaged the town. Four storms hit Haiti in all, killing nearly 800 people nationwide and causing $1 billion in damage to irrigation, bridges and roads.

The former president praised reconstruction efforts but said much more work needed to be done. He said Haiti needs more money and better coordination among aid groups and the government to rebuild and spur development.

“I’m just trying to organize this process and drive it faster,” Clinton said during a break in the tour, standing in the blazing midday sun alongside a smiling President Rene Preval.

Aid has poured into the Gonaives region but many homes and shops remain damaged and the area remains vulnerable to flooding because the surrounding hills have been stripped of trees to create farm fields and make charcoal for cooking.

It was Clinton’s first trip to Gonaives, but he was greeted like a returning hero. Shrieking girls clamored to have their photo taken with the former president and men pushed their elderly mothers through the crowd for a chance to shake his hand.

People stood on piles of rubble to catch a glimpse of Clinton’s motorcade as it wove through the rocky streets of Gonaives, one of the poorest cities in a chronically troubled country considered the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

Clinton said the Haitian government and its international backers hope to create 150,000 to 200,000 jobs nationwide over the next two years. Many of those jobs will come from projects to rebuild roads and shore up erosion-prone hillsides.

“It will be hard, but I think it’s important,” Clinton said later after returning to the capital, Port-au-Prince. “I want to try and speed up the aid and make sure to direct it toward the priorities of the Haitian people.”

He also visited a Venezuela-financed project where at least a dozen yellow backhoes and bulldozers dredged the La Quinte River, which inundated Gonaives last September like a backed-up septic tank. He examined an erosion-control terracing project that U.N. directors said was still only 10 percent financed.

But Gonaives has been disappointed by aid promises before. More than $70 million in aid poured in after Tropical Storm Jeanne killed an estimated 2,000 people in 2004, but most went to immediate relief and did nothing to prevent last year’s floods.

On Tuesday, Clinton and Preval laid flowers at a stone memorial to the victims of last year’s Tropical Storm Hanna and Hurricane Ike as a priest flung holy water and a saxophonist played “Taps.”

Clinton’s three-day visit, which ends Wednesday, is the former president’s second trip to Haiti this year. He accompanied U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Port-au-Prince in March, two months before being named to a special U.N. envoy.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.