Haiti 2010 Earthquake Response

How good, really, was the international response?

Above, Haitians seek cover under bedsheets and tarps.  Photo by Oxfam [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Over the weekend, drenching rains arrived in Haiti ahead of the expected start of the spring rainy season. But, only 30 percent of the million or so left homeless by the January 12 earthquake have received promised tarps or tents to provide even the most minimal protection from expected torrents.

Every disaster poses a unique challenge and, when one occurs, it is a learning experience for all.  Responsible relief organizations review their response to identify deficiencies and incorporate those lessons into written plans and staff training, ensuring that the response to future disasters will save more lives and speed recoveries.

As the Associated Press points out, “Learning the lessons of Haiti is taking on added urgency because planners expect the world’s natural disasters to grow in scope and frequency, as expanding populations crowd vulnerable coastlines and quake and flood zones, and climate change threatens more extreme weather events.”

While international relief organizations are acknowledging inadequacies in the Haiti earthquake response, U.S. officials are promoting a false image of the disaster as one with no significant problems, even as thousands of Haitians face weeks of drenching rains without shelter.  Shame on them.

U.N. humanitarian coordinator John Holmes has ordered a “real-time evaluation” of the response, and the organization’s independent inspectors are planning a long-range review. EU aid commissioner Karel de Gucht has proposed development of a European rapid response force.  But, lack of international cooperation continues to hamper reform.  A key stumbling block is the U.S. government’s continuing obsession with secrecy and control.

Despite its big role, the U.S. military doesn’t coordinate at high levels with the U.N. relief structure. After the quake, it took five days for Holmes’ OCHA to embed a liaison at the Southern Command’s Miami headquarters, in part because the Americans required someone with U.S. security clearance. [AP]

Lack of coordination has been blamed for slow and uneven distribution of food, water, shelter and medical care – all necessities of life.   For the sake of the millions of people who will be affected by disaster this year, U.S. senior officials need to commit to cooperation, coordination and transparency as essential aspects of emergency response.

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