Obama’s Katrina?

If you have been reading this blog, you know that I have been supportive of the U.S. and other nations’ efforts to assist Haiti and counseling patience because giant relief efforts do not materialize overnight.

That said, this opinion piece from today’s Wall Street Journal, bearing the title “Obama’s Katrina”, has a familiar ring to it:

On Wednesday, the day after the quake, we organized a relief team in cooperation with the U.S. State Department and Partners in Health (a Boston-based humanitarian organization) to provide emergency orthopedic and surgical care. We wanted to reach the local hospitals in Haiti immediately—but were only allowed by the U.S. military controlling the local airport to land in Port-au-Prince Saturday night. We were among the first groups there.
This delay proved tragic.

Exactly the same problem, that is non-”official” relief on the scene immediately — only to be prevented from operating by federal officials — occurred in hurricanes Andrew and Katrina.  I write in the manuscript for Warnings that officials seem to “prefer organized suffering to disorganized relief.”

I continue to believe the immediate priority is to get relief to the Haitian people, then there will be plenty of time to study and learn from what went wrong. My fear is: we still will not learn and make changes for future catastrophes.

Haiti Relief Complaints

I am watching the “Hope for Haiti Now telethon as I type this. They cut to Anderson Cooper a few minutes ago who, like so many, was complaining about the speed of the relief effort. I have written about this before, but I would like to do so again with an aerial tour via Google Earth.

If you will recall, the seaport was destroyed by the quake, so it could not be used immediately after. Besides, ships — while essential to the rebuilding effort — are too slow to provide immediate relief. So, the only feasible way to get supplies and expert help to the nation was via the Port Au Prince Airport.  This photo, taken January 16, shows the one runway airport (click to enlarge). Note how a single aircraft blocks the taxiway between the small

apron and the runway. The apron is full of planes and there are a number of planes parked on the grass. The infrastructure does not exist to quickly move and unload aircraft.

Once the airplanes are unloaded, the supplies and rescuers have to move into the city.  Look closely at the main road out of the airport (click to enlarge).  According to news reports, a number of those automobiles clogging the road were out of fuel or abandoned, further

slowing and complicating relief efforts.  Other parts of the imagery show collapsed, pancaked

buildings and debris-choked streets.

It may be that mistakes have been made and that things have not gone as smoothly as they might have. I don’t know. But, given the logistics and the security nightmare (the need to protect the rescuers from attack), it seems unreasonable to expect to metaphorically flip a switch and have exactly the right resources in the right place within hours or even a few days.

A quick addition.  The telethon just made another reference to the speed of food relief in a pre-recorded piece.  The thought just occurred to me that might help put things in perspective: Per a Google search I just did, the Telethon was announced on the 17th. Yet, it is taking place five days later. Fair enough. But, if it takes five days to organize a telethon staged in Los Angeles, the city of residence of many of the performers, one can see why it took days and will take weeks and months for the relief effort to fully gain traction.

I don’t, in any way, mean to denigrate the telethon. My point is that big efforts simply do not occur overnight.