January 14, 2010

American response to Hatian disaster

Haitian President Rene Preval was quoted yesterday estimating deaths from the devastating 7.0 Richter earthquake possibly as many as 50,000. Preval gave no source for the estimate, but U.S. and U.N. sources on the ground do not seem to dispute it. Many Americans and U.N. aid workers were said to be among the dead.

The United States is launching a response, both on the private and federal government levels. The speed of our response will be critical, as any delay will allow unnecessary suffering and possibly allow many more deaths. A delay will also undoubtedly be used as propaganda.

Americans could use a little PR in the region. Haitian President Preval is a bit of a leftist, paling around with the Castro brothers in years past, and more recently hosting that viral wingnut and vehement anti-American, Venezuela's own Hugo Chavez.

The ground in Haiti is fertile for Chavez-style socialism. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. 4 out of 5 Haitians lives in poverty. Over half the population is illiterate. Medical care is almost nonexistant. Deaths in children are high, and the life expectancy is only 51 years.

Chavez, in an effort to stoke an inherent anti-Yankee attitude, has masterfully worked the Latin American stage. Just a few years back, hot on the heels of a then U.S. President George W. Bush visit to the island, Chavez signed a generous $100-million assistance package and an oil concession, which will provide cheap oil, medical outreach and support, infrastructure construction and electricity generation.

Even though the United States is Haiti's largest foreign aid donor, doling out several hundred million dollars just since 2004, much of that aid is invisible to the population. Americans remain unpopular with Haitian youth, and with many of the politicians as well.

The ever-present fires of anti-Americanism have been an obstical, and Venezuela's 2007 aid package stoked those fires. Haitian officials say the oil concession alone is worth about $150-million a year. That is a benefit felt directly by all Haitians.

The Bush administration made a good effort in the region, and the Obama administration has continued those efforts. Our aid programs today provide funds for school textbooks, for HIV-AIDS treatment programs, and provide food aid to over 300,000 indigent Haitians. In 2007 Bush boosted the Haitian economy by signing into law a measure giving their clothing manufacturing industry duty-free entry into the United States. As a result, that industry is prosperous, and provides many good jobs.

But because they see little of the good we do, we remain unpopular with the bulk of the country's poor. We do not need to exacerbate that attitude with a slow response to this disaster.

Armchair Generalist has a new post up this morning discussing the U.S. military’s response to the disaster, in which he quotes a Partnership for the Americas article on the deployment of several Navy and Marine elements to conduct Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response (HA/DR) missions. In his words, this is something the DOD does well. It is also something that run-of-the-mill Americans do well.

Over the past nine years we have poured billions of dollars into preparedness for unlikely scenarios, all the while neglecting the very real scenario of natural disaster. As the good generalist says, “Just food for thought for the DOD ‘counter-WMD’ community. Time to get our priorities straight and to really exercise rational thought in this area.”

I agree. Our focus should be on those events where we have experience, and where our dollars can do the most good. The earthquake in Haiti will be a good test. It is in times such as these when Americans can show the world the stuff of which we are made, and that there is far more to us than Hugo Chavez and his ilk would like the world to think.

UPDATE: Good friend and non-blogger Chuck Krin, DO, posted a Haiti status report to the Trauma Surgeons Yahoo email group that I feel will add to this discussion. It seems our coordinated response has been as swift as we could hope, and we now have solid, preliminary resources in place and functioning. Read Chuck's report:

The USS Carl Vinson with 19 helos and 30 extra pallets of relief supplies is now reported on station at Port-au-Prince.

Doesn't sound like much, but with the nuclear carrier's capability to desalinate water (400,000 plus gallons a day), and the calorie density of the 'disaster crackers' that have become the pretty much de facto standard for emergency field feeding...that will go a long way to relieving some of the problems.

Add in the improvement in air traffic control, the medium sized hospital on board to handle some of the more critical cases, and just the extra coordination and manpower available, it's a decent start.

Yes, it is a decent start. Thanks to Chuck for the update.


Anonymous said...

I heard some remarks this morning on NPR by the officer in charge of the proposed U.S. military relief effort explaining why nothing was on the way to Haiti as yet - because the "situation on the ground" was as yet unknown.
What? They don't know what happens in a major earthquake to a large population center with substandard building codes and little infrastructure? I am ashamed of my country.

Mule Breath said...

If that were true I might not be very happy either, but I know that, among others, various specialists landed at Toussaint Louverture in 3 C-130's. Their goal is to get the airport ready to accept the hundreds of other aircraft already loaded and prepared to make the journey.

Obama had pretty much day-long meetings yesterday getting this stuff rolling. At one point in the afternoon he was quoted as telling his team that when they met again at 7:15 he wanted to know what the U.S. had done so far, and why we haven't done more.

All in all I think our response has been about as swift as we could expect, so I'm not disappointed.

Mule Breath said...

As a followup, this is an excerpt from an AP (forgive me lord, for I have sinned) piece published a few hours ago:

"The president announced 'the first waves' of the American response were in place, with two search-and-rescue teams on the ground, Coast Guard cutters in port, the U.S. Southern Command in control of the airport and airlifts bringing in urgently needed supplies and ferrying out the injured.

But the chief emphasis out of Washington was the huge amount of U.S. help that was still on the way — some half-dozen ships and 5,500 troops making their way across the Caribbean.

Old NFO said...

MB- you are correct, the ships are "on the way" but are limited to the slowest ship, which is Comfort- She only makes about 10 kts, so she will take a while. BUT she has a 900 bed hospital, full up operating rooms, etc. AF C-130s are on the ground, putting food/water on the ramp, but there is NO distribution system as the government is defunct at this point...

Also, Fairfax Co and others flew in emergency search teams, but there is NO heavy equipment to help them dig... sigh...

Once again the tyranny of time/distance is impacting the assistance, for which we will be blamed. CNNi is down on the US, and was from the first hours because we were not ALREADY there.

Mule Breath said...

NFO, you must have seen something I missed if you saw CNN get down on our response. What I've seen is every major news organization, including CNN and even Al Jazerra showing the responders who are on the ground doing their level best to facilitate rescues with the limited resources available. If I were going to chap any news organization for anything it would be FOX for their sparsity of coverage, although what they have shown has been positive.