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Ban Ki-moon's Katrina?

The sluggish international response to the earthquake that leveled Haiti's capital and wiped out so many of the United Nations staff holds serious political risks for the U.N. and its secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, who has struggled to restore order to a chaotic relief effort.

Nearly a week after the 7.0 earthquake smashed Port-au-Prince, large numbers of Haitians are struggling to find food and water or fleeing to the countryside. As Ban traveled through the Haitian capital Sunday with a 17-vehicle envoy filled with top U.N. brass and journalists, destitute Haitians pleaded for food.

The crisis in Haiti is shaping up as the biggest test of Ban's leadership since he was selected to lead the organization three years ago. As other major natural disasters have shown, including Hurricane Katrina, failure to step up to the moment can have steep political costs.

Immediately following the quake, Ban himself appeared slow to recognize the extent of the devastation. Nearly 14 hours after the earthquake, the secretary-general faced the U.N. press corps for the first time, and estimated that the death toll "may well be in the hundreds" -- not the tens of thousands predicted by one of his own officials.

The upbeat assessment reflected the tendency of a cautious U.N. leader who has a habit of downplaying the severity of crises. Over the past 24 hours, Ban's top advisors have portrayed the situation as calm even as reports of disorder have dominated media accounts.

The U.N. effort has been hobbled from the outset. The quake severed the U.N.'s communications, clogged the roads with broken concrete and debris, and severely damaged the city's main port. Much of the leadership of the U.N. mission in Haiti was killed or buried under rubble. The U.N.'s top relief coordinator survived the earthquake, but his wife and children were killed.

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United States, praised the U.N.'s immediate handling of the crisis, saying, "Ban Ki-moon and the entire U.N. leadership team have done extraordinary work under extremely difficult circumstances. Grieving and wounded colleagues and officials have risen in this hour of need to provide assistance to the people of Haiti."

U.S. and U.N. officials say that the surviving U.N. mission in Haiti has performed heroically in Haiti, and that they are swiftly rebuilding a broken relief operation that will dramatically increase aid deliveries. A force of some 3,000 peacekeepers has helped maintain law and order.

But some U.N. staffers have been less charitable, saying Ban has strained during town-hall meetings to comfort staff traumatized by the event. Others have faulted his decision to take a large entourage with him on his trip to Haiti, saying it diverted security and attention from the international response effort, although they appreciated his decision to fly back to the United States with the bodies of the mission's special representative Hedi Annabi and his deputy Luiz Carlos da Costa, both of whom died in the earthquake.

Families of the victims of the crisis have expressed frustration as what they see as the U.N's slow effort to provide psychological support to survivors of the crisis. Emily-Sanson Rejouis, a New Zealand relief worker with the U.N. who lost her husband and two daughters in the earthquake, was assigned a U.N. contact person only on Sunday -- nearly four days after the quake, according to her sister Rachel. A U.N. official said that Emily had not made it on to a list of survivors requiring immediate trauma care.

Inside Haiti, the criticism has also begun. CNN reported that a team of U.N. doctors  abandoned injured Haitians at a makeshift hospital, leaving CNN's reporter/surgeon, Sanjay Gupta, alone to tend to the patients. (Update: See editor's note below.) Philippine peacekeepers drove past armed looters without intervening. A top U.N. official in New York said that the U.N. leadership in Haiti was concerned that opening fire on a group of starving looters picking through a destroyed supermarket building would harm its image. They instructed the peacekeepers to stand back.

Some believe that Ban and his top advisors run the risk of building up expectations that the U.N.'s relief effort will be unable to meet. Robert Turner, a former U.N. relief official who is scheduled to travel to Haiti for the International Rescue Committee, said the prospects for a quick turnaround in the humanitarian situation are slim. He said that the U.N., which has strained to highlight the positive, needs to do a better job of managing expectations -- or it risks being blamed as the mood worsens in Haiti and the world looks to pin responsibility.

"Security is going to get worse," he said. "We tend to try to be positive, which is a natural human instinct. My personal view is we would be better off being realistic, and exceeding expectations. But I think it's probably too late for that."

UPDATE: CNN's claim that U.N. doctors abandoned Sanja Gupta is incorrect. They were Belgian doctors.

MINUSTAH via Getty Images

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