Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti and the Indulgence of Hate

The earthquake which ravaged Haiti this week has been used by a number of people as an excuse to make attacks on their political enemies. Some of the attacks have been generic, like the ubiquitous media insinuation that the delay in aid must be due to First-World disregard for the suffering of poor Haitians rather than the chaos of Haiti’s weak government and lack of emergency management planning, to the specific attempts at character assassination on Rush Limbaugh and Bill Clinton. At this writing I do not know whether the talk show host or former President of the United States made the remarks which their enemies claim (I am inclined to think not), but in any case the fact that such people use their voice to attack enemies rather than build coalitions to help people in need, speaks about a sad situation indeed, and to my mind the chief cause why we shall continue to see needless, avoidable suffering in places like Haiti.

There was no real way to avoid the earthquake, and given Haiti’s history of corruption and political feuds, it was perhaps inevitable that when a disaster struck again, the men in place to request and direct the flow of help would prove far inadequate to the need of their people. For example, Texas Task Force One and Ohio Task Force One, urban search & rescue groups with long experience assisting FEMA, international search and rescue groups, and the Red Cross in disaster relief, were in position at Ellington and Wright-Patterson Air Force bases within hours of the news of the disaster, ready with medical and surgical supplies, construction equipment to move debris, and together more than 160 experts and more than 120 tons of critical equipment to find survivors, provide on-scene surgical care and build shelters, bridges and repair phone and utility lines. The teams, however, have not been able to be deployed, because the Haitian government has not authorized their participation, even though these groups are arguably the most expert large-scale search and rescue groups on the planet, (having assisted in Hurricanes Ike, Rita, Katrina, and Wilma, the Tsunami which devastated Indonesia in 2004, other natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, and even terrorist acts, like recovery at Ground Zero in New York City; Texas Task Force One’s first assignment was recovery work at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995) they have not been allowed to even leave for Haiti. Not because they are not needed (both teams performed an earthquake scenario in the summer of 2009, for example), or because the United States has not requested their help, but because the Haitian government refuses to allow them entry. This is not to impugn the Haitian government, but it is a sad reminder that even the best intentions are not going to be enough to overcome some of the difficulties to be faced here.

The real problem for Haiti, however, is the same as from past disasters, like death-dealing storms in every year from 2002 through 2008. In fact, one reason Haiti was so unprepared for the present disaster, was that it was still reeling from 2008, when four tropical storms or hurricanes hit the nation. There simply is no Haitian equivalent of FEMA, no emergency response network of first-responders; people are left to fend for themselves as soon as a crisis hits. Because Haiti is so poor, roads and utility lines were never developed beyond the most primitive conditions, and building codes, even for schools and hospitals, are non-existent. In such a condition, blame and bitterness are perhaps inevitable, but solutions cannot be produced unless anger, justified or not, history, however painful, and personal pride, however habitual, are put aside in the interest of building for the future.

Because in the end, Haiti’s future depends on building. Not only rebuilding homes and businesses, but putting together a functional infrastructure that allows families and towns to have confidence not only in a given project, but in a system of financial, political, and personal responsibility that makes the nation viable, not only to its own people but also to its neighbors, in order to bring in the capital that leads to growth and stability. The one hope from this disaster, is that because Haiti has been building a government more responsive and accountable to its people, it may also build confidence in its nation through financial cooperation and the equity of the infrastructure it builds in recovery now. To that end, we all may lend help as best we can, but whatever our politics and ideology, this is no place to make political attacks or attack those who are trying to help the people now in pain and peril.

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