I have been to some pretty horrible places in my work as a journalist. I saw the Kosovo refugees in Macedonia and Albania, visited the slums of Nairobi, seen the City of the Dead, a cemetery in Cairo where it is reported that a million people live. I was in Mississippi and New Orleans within two weeks after Hurricane Katrina and have been to Iraq and seen India’s terrible poverty. I have a project in Sudan where people eat every other day. I was prepared for just about anything, until I arrived in Haiti last Sunday.
The poverty, of course, was overwhelming. But the sheer magnitude of the damage does not convey on television. There is street after street of earthquake damage and rubble with no hope of any quick relief. Modern technology saved so many people via their cell phones as they were able to call for help from under the concrete they were stuck in. There were many others who used their cell phones to call for help, but there was no way to dig them out of the rubble without heavy equipment that could not arrive.
Like a scene from “Planet of the Apes,” the presidential palace, supposedly built to earthquake standards, looked like something blown up for a Hollywood movie. It is hard to believe that 35 seconds could do so much damage. There was what was clearly and amazingly beautiful Catholic church that was completely wrecked but which had a huge cross with Jesus welcoming worshipers still standing. Everywhere there were signs of life and death next to each other.
What was amazing was how people worked together, showing the very best of the human spirit. Israeli planes with supplies were being unloaded next to planes from Arab countries that won’t allow Israeli citizens in their states. Chinese planes were unloaded with the guidance of the U.S. military. No one cared. Everyone worked together to provide relief.
Religious groups worked together without much care about their theology differences. Scientologists emptied bedpans at the hospital set up by the University of Miami. Catholics worked beside atheists, or even locals who have one foot in the voodoo world. Medical professionals gave up a week of their vacation time to volunteer.
The problem is that Haiti is going to need a lot more than perhaps the world is ready to give. It is going to take years, not months, to get the country operational. Approximately 400 schools were destroyed and the middle class was virtually wiped out. They were the teachers at universities and managers at banks and buildings that crumbled. Their equivalent of the Supreme Court was demolished with 200 employees inside it.
Haiti’s government has never been solid and has had monumental changes from Pappa Doc and Baby Doc to Aristide. The current government is well liked but considered ineffective. Fortunately, there has been progress before the earthquake. Police considered poorly trained and often brutal are getting a better reputation, thanks to an international training program using forces such as the New York City Police Department. International organizations such as Partners In Health and Cross International have been working in Haiti for years before the earthquake.
It is going to take concerted effort and coordination by countries such as the U.S. and France to make the difference needed. It’s going to take medical volunteers giving up their vacations, not just this year but in future years, to deal with a country that had little and has even less now.
Basic problems – such as how to get Florida Dade County’s donated classrooms to Haiti and set up on land with proper drainage – need to have leadership so the donations don’t go to waste. This is hard to do in a country where problems have gone unsolved for decades and its leaders have the added difficulties of stress and loss to cope with.
The only solution is to keep the pressure up for people to stay involved and not to write one check and feel they have done their deed. Haiti is a mirror that we can hold to look at the richness of America and how we can make the world a better place with our efforts.