Posts Tagged ‘Haiti Earthquake’

The Big Truck That Went By

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015
The Big Truck That Went By

The Big Truck That Went By

This book is a first-rate account of Haiti’s recent history, including the January 2010 earthquake, from the only American reporter stationed in the country at the time. Jonathan M. Katz was with the Associated Press and his observations of the earthquake and the even more tragic response to it resonated with me on so many levels. He describes how the response of international donors to the earthquake created problems that did not previously exist and despite their stated intentions, largely failed to accomplish what they had set out to do.

You might be tempted to think that this type of inept response could only occur in a developing country, but then consider the lessons of some of our recent disasters. I can imagine any one of my friends in the New Orleans area nodding in agreement upon reading the sections of the book dealing with the attempts to provide food and temporary shelters to those in Haiti who had lost everything. In my experience, non-profit organizations focused on disaster relief often focus more on serving the interests of their donors than the intended beneficiaries; that is part of the reason why I set up Prisere as an LLC and not a 501-c-3 charity. (There were other considerations, too.)

The real tragedy is that many of the losses were entirely avoidable. The earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010 registered 7.0 on the Richter Scale; severe to be sure, but only six weeks later, on February 27, an earthquake of magnitude 8.8 struck Chile, causing fewer casualties, largely due to building codes ensuring safer structures. The title of the book refers to the shaking that occurs when large trucks drive by; many Haitians initially attributed the movements on January 12 to that of a passing truck until they realized it was a true earthquake. The centralization of people and services in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, that proved so deadly, was partly the result of U.S. foreign policy and actions. The author argues that as Americans, we have a responsibility to understand, and correct, the harm caused by the massive humanitarian efforts our government led. I agree.

I was surprised that the author took such an unflinching look at the apparent cynicism behind the actions of Hillary Clinton. One of her first acts as Secretary of State was to order a review of U.S. policy towards Haiti. When, hours later, the earthquake struck, both Clintons assumed very visible roles in prodding other governments and non-governmental organizations to step up. Haitians are left to live with the consequences of our response; we have moved on. The ongoing struggles in Haiti are no longer part of our news cycle.

Another surprise, at least for me, was the author’s account of the actions of the actor Sean Penn, which he personally observed. My experience at Ground Zero has led me to be somewhat cynical about celebrities appearing on the scene of the disaster to “help”. I remember only too well how, in the aftermath of 9-11, a number of celebrities callously treated the area as another velvet rope. So-called “B” and “C” list celebrities could be photographed touring the remains with a uniformed officer as their guide. An “A” list celebrity would be taken about by then Mayor Giuliani. Only when the families of the deceased protested how disrespectful this practice was (remember at that time, most of them were still anxiously awaiting recovery of the remains of their loved ones), did the guided celebrity tours stop. At that time, the families of the 9-11 victims were quite powerful as their losses gave them political clout. According to what Katz had observed, and I trust the observations of a skeptical journalist, Penn was remarkably effective at showing up with media coverage and embarrassing local officials into doing something useful.

With natural hazards increasing in both frequency and severity, we all benefit from understanding how disaster relief works and how it could be improved. We benefit even more from understanding what can be done to reduce disaster risk. This book delivers on providing critical insights into both policy issues.

Adding Insult to Injury in Haiti

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

The only thing more horrifying than the human tragedy in Haiti is the so-called “disaster aid” that compounds the suffering of those who have already lost what little they have. Unfortunately, bureaucracy is the first order of relief efforts. USA Today reports that the U.S. Agency for International Development (part of the U.S. State Department) ordered U.S. soldiers to stop distributing food packages to desperate Haitians. However, the troops continued to give bottled water because they were not forbidden to do so. Sound crazy? Not really. Did you know that counselors of our Small Business Development Centers were forbidden to help their colleagues in the Gulf Coast assist their small business clients in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? The U.S. Small Business Administration prevented the counselors from crossing state lines. So many counselors went as unpaid volunteers. Bureaucracies have inflexible rules that get in the way of offering help. But had we acted honorably, the Haitians might not today be in such desperate straits. Tageschau Deutschland is reporting that U.S.-backed governments of developing countries received aid that motivated the relocation of the poor to areas particularly prone to natural hazards. Even worse, a public display of aid assistance may be used to weaken demands to accept more immigrants from Haiti to the U.S. where they would have a credible shot at rebuilding their lives. It is sad, but true, that the poorest are the most vulnerable to disasters, whether in the U.S. or overseas and that relief aid more often than not serves the interests of the donors, not the recipients.