Haiti and Emergency Management

Members of ASPA’s Section on Emergency and Crisis Management have been following Hurricane Katrina and trying to understand the limitations of disaster response, and what might be done to get help to victims and survivors faster.

Haiti now adds another layer of study for us. What factors are present in a disaster requiring international aid? How can these avoided becoming barriers to needed assistance?

The Section will sponsor a session on Haiti in April at the annual conference in San Jose where section members and ASPA members can have an open conversation on this public administration challenge for 2010 and beyond!

Disasters requiring international aid have occured with distressing frequency in the recent past. The January 2010 Natural Hazards Observer just featured a pair of invited comments on international aid, reflecting on Cyclone Nargis, and in one George Kent leads off with the challenge of the hour: “The rights and obligations of different parties in humanitarian assistance need to be clarified.”

Bruce Binder, long time Veterans Administration emergency manager, FEMA disaster responder and EIIP Board member, just circulated a document on Friday, January22 showing that the Red Cross tried to bring the Unified Command structure to bear on Haiti, to no avail. In my own recent article in Journal of Contingency and Crisis Management, I raise some of the concerns with the delivery of cross-border aid, especially international challenges.

The day of the earthquake the President of Haiti said that his home and his palace had both collapsed, and that he had no place to sleep, “but I have plenty of time to look for a bed.” Since then the airport has become the defacto seat of government, while coordination of aid operations seems limited to the US government assets – mainly military and DHS- as they provide air traffic control and airport logistics management. The US military reports on using GPS to track US assets in the field, but who is coordinating the multi-national relief efforts going on all over the disaster area?

The New York Times’ daily photos show fear and shock changing to anger, with pre-disaster gang activity again on the rise. The UN and its Brazilian peacekeepers, present before the earthquake, became disaster victims along with the Haitians they were trying to protect.

Does the US have a special responsibility as a neighbor? As a hemisphere leader through OAS? What should be expected of the Dominican Republic? Of other Carribbean neighbors? Should the UN and International Red Cross be the lead agencies? Who is responsible once life safety issues (e.g. rescue and immediate medical care) have been addressed? Will the nation’s central government be able to provide any command and control functions?

The total national disaster is a new disaster model that will need some new strategies.  While the southeast Asian tsunami and Cyclone Nargis were devastating, the national capitals were spared and national government functions continued. In Haiti the capital was the site of  the worst of the shaking, taking down ministry buildings with their public servants inside. How does the loss of a country’s trained administrators impact its ability to respond to and recover from such devastation?

On Friday, January 22, the second week after the earthquake, 500,000 Port-au-Prince residents were being evacuated from the carnage and wreckage to tent cities outside the urban area. While this may be good from a public health perspective, what are the mental health impacts of the loss of community and sense of place? How will people cope with their grief in a new environment without the succor of long time neighbors and parish priest?

Another question is where will the money come from to rebuild a  country, where one third of the population is victim/survivor? Government facilities are gone. The port is gone. The airport has one usable runway. The water and sewer plants, hospitals, schools and churches are all damaged or destroyed in the quake area. Lacking building codes, the built environment has crumbled, and now has become a second layer of disaster: debris management.

We can give  money to the Red Cross or Unicef. We can engage in prayer or whatever religious or philosophical activities we believe will help. We, however, are not just concerned by-standers, but public administrators. What can we give of ourselves, our knowledge, our capability to ensure that such a disaster is not repeated in Haiti? That is the real challenge to ASPA.

Frannie Edwards, past chair (2006-2009), SECM

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