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The Haiti EarthquakeInside HumanitarianismInside the Documentary

Relief Challenges

In the weeks following the Haiti earthquake, international aid agencies came under fire for a disaster response that was perceived to be slow considering the scale of need. Humanitarians responded that the conditions in Haiti made it “a disaster unlike any other,” and that normal rules didn’t apply. What were the specific challenges that made the delivery of aid so difficult in Haiti?

“In every direction the task is huge, it is an historic challenge”
— Elisabeth Byrs, United Nations

Destroyed hospitals. A government in ruins. Blocked roads and damaged ports. Over 300,000 injured, 225,000 killed, and 1.5 million people homeless. In Haiti, humanitarian workers were faced with one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent history; what one agency termed “the most complex emergency to date.” In this excerpt from Inside Disaster, Red Cross FACT team leader J.P. Taschereau describes arriving in Port-au-Prince and wrapping his mind around the task ahead: “I knew it was going to be bad . . . but [the destruction] was just everywhere . . . kilometer after kilometer after kilometer.” The enormous scale of the disaster prompted the largest single-country response in the history of the Red Cross.

“The most persistent systemic problem with big international aid efforts . . . is that no one is in charge.”
— “Organizing Armageddon”, Vince Beiser, April 19, 2010, Wired Magazine.

Over 900 NGOs responded to the Haiti earthquake, each with its own priorities, suppliers, and work style: “they compete with one another for resources, duplicate one another’s efforts, and generally get in one another’s way,” Wired Magazine wrote of the relief effort. The job of coordinating the response in Haiti fell to two major groups: the United Nations, which created the humanitarian ‘Cluster System’ for this purpose, and the U.S. military, which became a de facto coordinator through its control of the airport. The two failed to work together, leading to what one NGO termed “a situation of utter chaos.” One month after the quake, a leaked email from the head of the UN agency that oversees the cluster system revealed frustration at the top: “Very little progress has been made [in the area of coordination]. This lack of capacity . . . is beginning to show and is leading others to doubt our ability to deliver.”

“The significant limiting factor in terms of our ability to move forward is the reality of the infrastructure in Haiti.”
— P.J. Crowley, U.S. State Department

Even before the January 2010 earthquake, Haiti’s roads, airports, ports and highways were under strain from previous natural disasters, compounded by decades of poverty and corruption. The earthquake threw the already-fragile system into almost-total collapse: the port was severely damaged, roads were blocked and destroyed, and the government was in ruins. Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, accustomed to receiving 35 flights per day, quickly scaled up to take in over 100 planes per day. In this video, Red Cross FACT coordinator Steve McAndrew describes how infrastructure damage limited the relief effort in Haiti: “there’s a limit where you just can’t go any faster.”

“What you have is the perfect storm of infection. What you have is a breakdown. It is already a fragile infrastructure with high rates of infectious and neglected tropical disease. Now there are potential breakdowns in sanitation, clean water, housing and subsequent crowding. That’s a terrible mix.”
— Dr. Peter Hotez, George Washington University

Consider the medical challenges facing the humanitarian community in the early days of the disaster response: over 300,000 injured, 60% of hospitals in ruins, one out of ten in-country medical professionals killed by the quake, 4,000 survivors requiring emergency amputations, a shortage of anesthetic, almost no facilities for blood transfusions, a shortage of clean water. Health care providers treated brutal wounds under ‘civil war’ medical conditions. Thousands of people died of their injuries. In the weeks after the quake, the scope of challenges shifted but didn’t shrink: delays in treatment, inadequate post-operative care, the infection of open wounds, and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the camps created new obstacles for medical providers, which continue to this day.

Homeless & Displaced
“This is their history, their whole life, their belongings . . . People want to stay where they consider home is. It’s a natural human instinct.”
— Hossam Elsharkawi, IFRC

Over 1.5 million Haitians lost their homes in the January earthquake. Within hours of the quake, each of these individuals and families required shelter, sanitation facilities, and space to live. With Port-au-Prince in ruins, over 1,000 camps for displaced people sprung up around the city. The housing challenges facing the government and humanitarian agencies were twofold: first, to identify safe, available spaces in and around the city where camps with transitional shelters could be established for the displaced; second, to convince people to move into them. As Hossam Elsharkawi of the IFRC explains in this excerpt from Inside Disaster, neither are simple challenges.

“This is total madness . . . The systems have simply fallen down. They have no communication and as such it is hampering the whole logistical effort”
— Daryl Vaz, Information Minister, Jamaica

“Urgent need of five satellite phones for the President, Prime Minster, Minister for the Interior, the Chief of Police and the Haitian Ambassador to the UN.” This request went out to a disaster response listserv on January 14; 48 hours after the earthquake, top government officials were virtually unable to communicate with each other, or with the the relief effort. The earthquake wiped out landlines across Port-au-Prince, and left only intermittent mobile service for the first few days. Working mobile networks were overloaded with calls from around the world, as friends and relatives sought news of their loved ones in Haiti. The humanitarian community relied on expensive and difficult-to-access satellite phones throughout the early stages of the relief effort. As IFRC’s Hossam Elsharkawi explains, sometimes aid workers had to drive across town to deliver messages to each other.

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