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Actor Sean Penn tells Congress about Haiti relief efforts, need for supplies in hospitals

WASHINGTON (AP) — Actor Sean Penn said Wednesday the biggest challenge facing post-quake Haiti is getting hospitals staffed and supplied during its current rainy season and ahead of the upcoming hurricane season.

Penn, who co-founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization shortly after the earthquake and is now the designated manager of one of Port-au-Prince's largest camps for survivors, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the problem requires "immediate attention" and should not be held up by bureaucratic disagreements.

"In many cases, the bureaucracy of international aid is protecting people to death," Penn said, noting that several hospitals have closed because they have been over-scrutinized and under-supported.

The actor testified at the hearing along with administration officials, who also highlighted some of the successes made since an earthquake devastated the country in January. The disaster killed a Haitian government-estimated 230,000 to 300,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more.

"I come here today in the hope that we will address with bold clarity the razor's edge upon which Haiti lies," Penn said.

T. Christopher Milligan, who coordinates the disaster response in Haiti for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the agency has helped vaccinate about 900,000 adults and children against common diseases. In addition, he said, USAID has worked with the international community to assist 1.5 million people with shelter. And more people have access to clean water than before the earthquake, he said.

"That said, let me be clear: The challenges before us are formidable," Milligan said. "The road ahead will not be easy."

Poverty, security and poor health care are just a few of the problems Haitians face, Milligan said, and a lack of infrastructure is only made worse by the tons of rubble from the earthquake.

Milligan said the agency has been focused on the approaching hurricane season, but assessing what effect the earthquake has had on shelters and other hurricane plans has been difficult.

"We still are not there yet," he said. "We are still preparing."

The hurricane season officially starts June 1. Rainwater is already making lives difficult. Quake survivors took shelter under tarps Wednesday in the ramshackle suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets from a cold drizzle, while children played in a mud puddle that has been breeding mosquitoes since a harder Monday rainfall.

Mothers said most of the children there have fevers they fear are the onset of malaria.

"If a real hurricane came, we couldn't live here," said Edner Soirime, a 55-year-old selling beer and sundries. But, he added, "we have nowhere to go."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee's No. 2 Republican, have proposed increasing American aid to Haiti to $3.5 billion over the next five years.

"In many ways, our work in Haiti is just beginning," Kerry said.

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Associated Press writer Jonathan M. Katz in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this report.

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