Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010

One Week After the Quake: Haiti at the Tipping Point

For those who have covered natural disasters or political crises in Haiti in the past, the first thing you tense up for is the mayhem — the looting, the chaos, the bug-eyed gunfire. Haitians are no more violent than any other population, but after centuries of relentless economic deprivation, government brutality, public insecurity and lashing hurricanes, their collective fuse is understandably shorter. So you'd think Haiti's Jan. 12 earthquake — the worst to hit the western hemisphere's poorest country in more than 200 years, leaving millions in Port-au-Prince with no water, food or hospitals and a negligible police presence — would have by now produced an equally terrible aftershock of civil unrest.

To the surprise of international aid workers, military officers and cynical correspondents on the broken ground, it hasn't. There have certainly been incidents of looting, some of them violent, but nothing like the bloody bedlam that accompanied, for example, the 2004 overthrow of then President Jean-Bertrande Aristide. And this despite the fact that the delivery of relief supplies is still hitting snags and bottlenecks that have only worsened the despair.

The reasons for that say a lot about how life in Haiti had seemed to be improving before the quake hit. International investment was up; $365 million of it was pledged worldwide via the Global Initiative headed by U.N. special envoy Bill Clinton. Police security was returning to the streets — and not only were traffic lights working, but Haitian drivers were actually stopping when those lights turned red, as Haiti expert and author Kathie Klarreich noted last month in a Miami Herald Op-Ed after a recent visit. "Real or perceived," Klarreich wrote, "there is a sense of order."

Just as important, says Haiti analyst and development consultant Jocelyn McCalla, himself a Haitian American, a rare sense of common purpose was emerging. After the viciousness of 2004 and the helplessness wrought by four hurricanes in 2008, "Haitians were putting away their political differences," says McCalla. "There was more goodwill there on the eve of the earthquake than the country had seen in decades." McCalla believes the long overdue revival of civil sanity helps explain why Haitians, even amid this latest tragedy, "look more poised to come together and roll up our sleeves."

But can that bearing hold up? Because frustrations are percolating amid the disjointed relief campaign, the big question is how long the U.S. and the international community have before that controlled desperation bursts into furious disorder. The remaining days of January will be a tipping point — critical to keeping the situation in Haiti's streets, tent cities and relief-supply stations from an irrevocable meltdown that would threaten not just the country's short-term recovery but the long-term revitalization it was glimpsing before Jan. 12.

First, the military and civilian aid organizations have to better work in sync. The military — the U.S. military as well as U.N. forces — needs to be more sensitive to the relief agencies' needs, especially the timely arrival of supplies at Port-au-Prince's Toussaint Louverture International Airport. But it should nonetheless have control of the relief effort (or what has so far used the misnomer of Operation Unified Response). That doesn't mean soldiers, sailors and pilots should usurp the aid organizations' responsibilities; it means that in a disaster of this magnitude, they should be the instruments of a relief infrastructure that those agencies have too often tried to construct themselves, to lame effect.

One of the more vivid lessons of the Hurricane Katrina debacle is that the relief effort didn't find its groove until four or five days into the misery, when military brass like Army General Russell Honoré and Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen took over from FEMA bureaucrats. They're not magicians, but they're a lot more effective at making sure rice, Gatorade and surgical scalpels get on the right helicopters to the right zones. It was the U.S. Air Force that finally brought order to the traffic chaos at Louverture after the quake, and since last weekend there has been a more orderly flow. But given how heavy the relief-flight traffic is — and given the contentious issues that have resulted, such as supplies being dumped from 1,000 feet in some instances or seemingly critical flights like the one carrying Doctors Without Borders' medical supplies being diverted temporarily to the Dominican Republic — there should probably be a more central decision-making authority there than a committee made up of the Haitian government, the U.N. and the U.S. State Department and Air Force.

Nor is there yet enough ground security to make sure aid distribution "doesn't become a competition for supplies" among frantic Haitians, says Navy Rear Admiral Ted Branch, strike-group commander aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson, now a few miles off Haiti's coast as a key U.S. relief platform. "We need a more controlled environment," he says, and that means not only bringing in more elements of the 82nd Airborne and the 7,500 additional troops President Obama ordered up this week, but keeping them there until Haiti is on its feet again. As for fears of a U.S. military presence compromising Haitian sovereignty, the earthquake already did that; as long as Haitians understand that U.S. troops are there to restore it, they're not likely to protest. A 2008 study by the nonprofit United States Institute of Peace, in fact, showed that residents of Port-au-Prince's poorest neighborhoods welcomed the recent crackdowns by U.N. security forces against Haitian gangs.

Second, don't make a bad impression. Haitians in recent days have groused that the U.S. and its partners aren't moving medical supplies and treatment into hard-hit zones as quickly and diligently as they could. Or worse, they complain that the triage process has appeared to favor Americans and other foreign nationals over Haitians. (The impression, fair or not, that Doctors Without Borders planes aren't getting landing priority hasn't helped either.)

More than a hurricane, an earthquake results in especially grisly injuries that often require amputations and breed foul infections — a visual source of panic for any population, but especially one like Haiti's that fears it is cut off from the world. Last weekend, the Vinson's modern onboard hospital received a 6-year-old boy whose pelvis had been crushed by his collapsed house, causing potentially deadly peritonitis. "His name is Lionel," said Henri Ford, a Haitian-American pediatric surgeon who accompanied the boy. "You can't believe how many kids like him have injuries like this in Port-au-Prince right now." But the U.S. can make Haitians believe that victims like Lionel are as urgent as injured American college students in Haiti — and the expected arrival this week of the 250-bed Navy hospital ship Comfort is an opportunity to showcase that concern.

Third, the U.S. somehow needs to give Haitians a bit of psychological reassurance that the Americans are not just interested in restoring potable water and electricity but also that sense of development momentum Haiti was feeling before the quake. Sending Bill Clinton, the man who'd been ushering in all that investment, to the relief volunteer lines this week was a good step in that direction. Dispatching engineers to advise President René Préval on more earthquake-proof construction codes would help too. But it's critical that Haitians have hope that the quake didn't put the kibosh on progress for good. They'd had a brief but buoying taste of it until last week, and if that hope disappears as cruelly as their concrete walls did, it could shorten Haiti's fuse once more.