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|January 20, 2010|
Haiti shows the need for better disaster relief.
'You have not been forsaken," President Barack Obama assured the people of Haiti two days after the earthquake demolished a country already on its knees. The president's message was on point. But, for Haitians desperate for aid, it was likely little comfort.
With massive military capabilities and highly trained rescue staff both in the United States and around the world, why do natural disasters always seem to catch us so unprepared? When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, Americans reached into their pockets and prayed, while those we trusted to lead scrambled, mangling their half-baked plans.
The response to the Haitian earthquake has been different. President Obama has been involved from the outset, and the American response has been massive and commendable. The American people responded to the catastrophe with characteristic generosity—over $112 million was contributed to the Red Cross alone. And 30 countries came together with rescue teams and supplies. Yet seven days have passed and we still have not managed to fully implement a coherent rescue and relief operation in a country just one hour's flight from Florida.
A weak and overwhelmed Haitian government has declared there is little it can do. An aide to the mayor in Port-au-Prince described the situation as "anarchy." So it has fallen to the U.S. to lead the relief effort, deploying a fully equipped floating hospital, 250 government doctors and medical personnel, helicopters, and more than 10,000 soldiers and Marines.
Despite these resources Haiti's incapacitated infrastructure has crippled relief efforts, costing precious time and lives. The Haitian port is too damaged to accommodate large ships. Airplanes circle the tiny, single-runway airport for hours waiting for an opportunity to land, and the airport lacks sufficient fuel to refuel departing planes. Some humanitarian aircraft are rerouted to neighboring Dominican Republic where they must find trucks to convoy the 12 or more hours along broken roads. Still, 200 planes have managed to land and take off each day in Port-au-Prince, leaving their precious cargo—food, water, medicines and equipment—stacked on the sizzling tarmac.
As we enter day eight, the odds of finding buried victims alive are slim. The priority now is organizing orderly distributions of food and water to increasingly desperate people. Medical centers must be set up immediately to care for the wounded. And vulnerable, starving people competing for resources need to be protected by military forces from violence and stampedes.
Some have been critical of the United Nations, which has had a significant presence in Haiti since 1994, for not playing a stronger role in organizing the rescue operations. But the peacekeeping mission suffered the greatest loss in U.N. history when 150 workers—including Mission Chief Hedi Annabi—perished beneath the collapsed U.N. compound.
Television coverage of this disaster has been agonizing. It has been shocking to see the corpses clogging the streets, piled high outside the morgues, or dumped by the thousands into mass graves. From the comfort of our couches, we watch the horror of dying children trapped in the rubble in real time.
Abhorrent as this thought may be, as sure as night will fall there will be another disaster so terrible that entire infrastructures will be decimated, hundreds of thousands of people will need to be rescued, and every moment will matter.
We must plan for the next time. The first step is clear: The U.N. needs to formulate an international response corps. This corps would be tasked with contingency planning for sites known to be at risk of natural disaster. It would ensure there is a coherent game plan capable of putting rescue teams on the ground in any country. And it would apply the same alacrity and level of organization we use when we have a military objective. No matter how good an ad hoc response is, it will never be quick enough to save lives in the first chaotic days of a catastrophe. There are many components to building a more effective response in the future, but advance planning is essential.
Rescue teams, water, food, medicine and tents have finally started to reach the Haitian people. But for far too many, help has come too late.