Haiti on Our Minds

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Buildings throughout Port au Prince, Haiti, collapsed without warning during the recent catastrophic earthquake. Photo: USAID

Like many of you, I’ve been watching three days of news reports streaming from MSNBC.com and CNN.com. As I sit here in the comfort of a sturdy Midwestern home, I grieve for people I have never known. I watch in frustration as the planes land with supplies, yet reports from the streets are that aid is not reaching those who are most affected and most vulnerable.

What amazes me is the overall calm that has prevailed so far in this desperately poor country, even in the face of a disaster of massive proportions. Men, women, and children alike wait — in an amazingly orderly manner for the most part — for help that is far too long in coming. Yes, there have been occasional outbreaks of violence and looting. But the astonishing thing is how long peace reigned before any trouble began — and that it still reigns still over most of the capital city.

“Give Us … Courage”

Speaking to an MSN.com camera crew, one young man said, “I don’t expect you to get it to us immediately. But at least give us something, so we can have courage.”

Meanwhile, food, water, and medical supplies are arriving by the ton. But as of late last night, they didn’t seem to be reaching the people who need them. And, with power out in the city and most mobile communications down, word of the coming relief isn’t spreading any faster than the supplies themselves. A major reason for the delay is the crushed infrastructure. I watched last night as a reporter showed photos on a high-tech version of Google Earth, updated after the first quake: The main roads are obstructed for miles. Heavy equipment will be required to get aid through to large sections of Port-au-Prince.

I wondered, as MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders had wondered aloud, Why can’t the medical workers just set up their stations in the places where most of the people are located and start treating them there? He answered that question with a comment from an aid worker, which was roughly as follows: It’s too dangerous to set up without security. We’d be overwhelmed by so many people demanding help at once.

Maybe. But if they had started distributing aid as soon as it arrived, wouldn’t that have done a lot to give people the “courage” that the young man had asked for? I wonder, too, how many more lives could they have saved? But, I’m not there. I can’t possibly know what’s right to do or how best to help.

“Me First” Doesn’t Cut It

Speaking of helping — or not — MSNBC.com showed a large gathering of foreigners, quite a few of them Americans, waiting at the airport for flights out of Haiti. After seeing the videos of the inner city, I felt some shame at what I heard from my fellow Americans.

One woman held a sign that said, “I’m an American” followed by some comment like “Get me out of here” or “I want to go home.” I really don’t recall the exact words, but that’s not the point. So what if she is an American? Does that entitle her, with her good health and able body, to special privilege? Could she not set aside her feeling of entitlement long enough to comfort an orphaned child, clean a wound, or show some measure of compassion?

Even two days after the quake, a few people were still being pulled out from the rubble alive. Others are still being found, but the numbers are dwindling. There must be  thousands still left buried alive, slowly losing hope. They will die, if rescue does not come immediately. So, I wonder, how many of the people waiting for a flight out of the country are able bodied? How many of them could have helped try to save even a single Haitian from a slow, agonizing death?

I’m fighting to give my countrymen the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they had important reasons to hurry home: children who need them, elderly parents to care for, their own health at risk. Or perhaps the US government had urged Americans to leave; I honestly don’t know.

Another would-be passenger complained, “They told us they’d bring us water. That was six hours ago!” Of course these people were thirsty and hungry and tired; it’s no fun waiting at an airport in the best of times. But it crossed my mind, as it may have crossed yours, How long had the real earthquake victims been without potable water? A day or two perhaps? I may be wrong about the timing of that, as I was watching a stream of news reports that had been recorded earlier. I was focused on learning about the disaster and relief efforts, not on recording words for this post. In fact, this post arose from my frustration and anger after watching the news reports.

Still, as I said at the beginning, I’m sitting here in Iowa in comfort. I’m not in Haiti. I’m not lifting rubble to search for victims. I’m not suffering in heat while bodies rot all around me. So, you may argue that I have no right to chastise others for their ego-centric behavior. I just hope, if I am ever confronted with helping in a disaster, that I do better. And if I do not, then I will live in shame for the rest of my days.

Give to Save Lives

My friend Sam Griswold posted this quote on Facebook today:

“Whatever God’s dream about man may be, it seems certain it cannot come true unless humanity cooperates.” — Stella Terrill Mann

For those of you who, like me, cannot go to Haiti to help in person (and authorities say we shouldn’t go there now, unless we are part of an organized rescue effort), we can still “cooperate” in helping our fellow humans caught in this catastrophe. There are several legitimate charities to consider supporting. Their work in Haiti is costly and vitally necessary. I invite you to choose one or more of the following — or suggest another you trust — and send a contribution as quickly as possible.

Partners in Health: This small NGO has been doing incredible work in the mountains of Haiti for 25 years. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder profiled the organization in his book Mountains Beyond Mountains. You can read reviews of the book that provide vital information about PIH on Amazon.

Charity Navigator awarded Mercy Corps four stars — the highest rating — for their organizational efficiency. Here’s how Mercy Corps describes itself:

Mercy Corps is a team of 3700 professionals helping turn crisis into opportunity for millions around the world. By trade, we are engineers, financial analysts, drivers, community organizers, project managers, public health experts, administrators, social entrepreneurs and logisticians. In spirit, we are activists, optimists, innovators and proud partners of the people we serve.

Médecin Sans Frontière/Doctors Without Borders (from their website):

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an international medical humanitarian organization created by doctors and journalists in France in 1971. Today, MSF provides aid in nearly 60 countries to people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe, primarily due to armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, exclusion from health care, or natural disasters.

The American Red Cross: You can donate through the ARC website or punch in 90999 and text “Haiti.” You’ll be asked to confirm your donations (as well as whether you care to receive future text updates from the American Red Cross, says Rachel Maddow). In the first two days after the earthquake, says Maddow, the American Red Cross raised $6 million dollars. That’s now up to more than $8 million at the time of this writing. Here’s a bit about the American Red Cross from their website:

[I]n addition to domestic disaster relief, the American Red Cross offers compassionate services in five other areas: community services that help the needy; support and comfort for military members and their families; the collection, processing and distribution of lifesaving blood and blood products; educational programs that promote health and safety; and international relief and development programs

Save the Children: Among other activities, “Save the Children works for and with children at risk of hunger and malnutrition and those affected by natural disaster, war and conflict. … One of our key priorities is protecting children in emergencies around the world. We’re on the ground now, in Haiti delivering assistance, often with local staff in advance of a disaster, and we stay on the scene long afterwards.”

There are, of course, many more relief organizations. Some of them are doing important work. Some of them are scams. If you choose to donate, please check into the organization that will be handling your gift. Make sure it is a reputable group that uses its funds wisely for the benefit of the victims — not to line the pockets of the organizers.

If you choose to text a donation to Haitian relief on your mobile phone, please note that, though your response is immediate, the relief you send is not. Here’s Tony Aiello, CEO of MGive, speaking on The Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC.com):

If you and I both give today, we might be paying our mobile bill on a different … monthly billing cycle. The carriers have to collect all of that money and then distribute it to the 501c3 clearinghouse and then distribute it to the charities. Everyone in the chain wants to get the money to the Red Cross as fast as possible. … In traditional day-to-day fund-raising, it’s about … 90 days between the time that the mobile user presses the buttons on the phone and the dollars arrive at the charity. We hope to streamline that for this disaster based on the size and scope of this situation. … That said, because this is such a major disaster, I think people are going to be needing dollars for quite some time.

And let’s all remember that a disaster of such catastrophic proportions will not be healed in a few weeks. The Haitians who survive this crisis will continue to need our aid as they rebuild in the months and years to come. If we give wisely, we can make a long-term, positive difference.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)