Sunday, January 17, 2010


The magnitude of the enormous tragedy and chaos unfolding in Haiti (already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere) is frustrating and overwhelming many around the world including this writer. Were it not for the massive, yea heroic, efforts of the United States Military, what relief now pouring in Haiti wouldn’t/couldn’t be happening. Marines, members of the 82nd Airborne’s 2nd Brigade from Fort Bragg, NC and the United States Air Force's (USAF) elite 23rd Special Tactics Squadron from Florida are trying to put an already badly cracked Haitian Humpty Dumpty back together again. Critical to that effort was the US Air Force’s aforementioned 720th Special Tactics Group which reopened and are now overseeing and conducting 24-hour operations and air traffic control at the critical link for humanitarian relief - Port-au-Prince airport.

The earthquake, not surprisingly, destroyed the control tower at the airport along with most of the rest of the infrastructure in Haiti including the local seaports, vital cogs in the logistics wheel. The US Military in the person of Navy Seabee divers from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story-based Underwater Construction Team 1 (Norfolk, VA) and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 7 (Gulfport, MS) along with other Navy divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 (Little Creek) and Naval Sea Systems Command (Wash DC) are in place. Along with engineers from Naval Facilities Engineering Command they are now trying to repair and open many of those vital ports.

But no airport access, no immediate relief. Early on activity was only a trickle because of little fuel and only two fuel trucks for all the planes flying in and out of Port-au-Prince airport. Indeed, after the USAF arrived it took six hours to remove a large plane from the tarmac at Port-au-Prince that was in need of fuel and blocking flight operations. Within minutes of their arrival USAF personnel were talking to inbound aircraft carrying humanitarian aid.

Many of the planes that were able to land had difficulty off loading their much needed cargoes. Again in the forefront was the U.S. Military. While they brought in fork lifts and other equipment, airport capacity wasn’t enough to meet the dozens if not hundreds of flights lined up by relief agencies and governments from around the world. Then the flights turned into a massive log jam though with a lot of TLC transitioned to a now a fairly smooth process with maximum optimum capacity now estimated to be 180 flights per day.

Once material is unloaded the major concern has been how to transport the materials throughout the compromised country. Much of the material remains sitting and waiting to be distributed. With the predictable looting now notching up there is also a real concern that any food convoys will be attacked by desperate citizens or criminals intent on profiting from the chaos. Part of that criminal element includes some 4,000 prisoners which escaped from the destroyed main prison complex in Port-au-Prince and are now freely roaming the streets. Again it would appear that United Nations peacekeeping troops and the US Military will continue to provide security for these convoys and the ultimate distribution of the food and supplies.

The military effort has been critical to the overall humanitarian effort and the arrival of one of the US Navy’s Nimitz class aircraft super carriers, the USS Carl Vinson, with its newly acquired additional 19 helicopters and relief supplies is already having a major impact on the effort. Along with other US Navy vessels, the Baltimore, Maryland-based hospital ship USNS Comfort, with personnel from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Va. left today for Haiti. A total of nine ships will constitute the US Navy presence. Interestingly, in toto these ships will be able to produce more than 900,000 gallons of water daily with a substantial portion to be used to help meet the needs of the local populations.

The Associated Press today reflected on the World Food Program (WFP) that yesterday distributed six truckloads of high energy biscuits at the densely populated, usually violent, ravaged shanty city, Cite Soleil (Sun City) in Port-au-Prince. At the end of the day with a few cases left there were still 10,000 people waiting in line… God bless them. Yes, you have to start somewhere.

Some of the positives include the heroic United States Agency for International Development (USAID) which has delivered tons of materials and supplies to Haiti and already installed three water purification systems capable of producing 300,000 liters of safe drinking water daily. More are on the way. They have already distributed hundreds of thousands of packaged meals. Objective daily time line reports on the activities of USAID and the other relief agencies in the area are available at

Now the United States is not alone in its effort. The international response has been unprecedented with Canada, Britain, Russia, Israel, France, Jordan, China, Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, Georgia, Qatar and scores more responding with materials and personnel as never before in the history of Man. The big problem has been - who’s running the show? Some say the Red Cross while others identify the UN or the US Military. One thing for sure it’s not the government of Haiti. They are broken and overwhelmed, yea, just about impotent. Many ministers, bureaucrats and government workers are also part of the statistics and have been injured or isolated or looking after Family and relatives. An articulate grief stricken Haitian woman surveying the city looked into the camera and in a profound angst proclaimed, “Haiti is no more…”

While there is apparently no formal coordinating lead on this effort supplies have been pouring in and predictably there have been too many of this - not enough of that and a government that doesn’t know the difference or can’t do anything about it. While there are formal designated distribution points there doesn’t appear to be an overall orderly or predictable distribution of supplies - just a tidal wave of well intended people who are doing their best. Now if that’s the best that we can do now – that’s better than nothing. But, aside from all this we need a leader; someone who can step in and take the point even if by the right of assumption.

Now one of the most frustrating aspects of the whole Haitian tragedy is that just a hop, skip and jump from Haiti on the American mainland, there are literally thousands of trained and experienced American Red Cross disaster relief volunteers (DSHR) who are available but will not be called upon to serve. Why? Because this is an International Effort. I have talked with other Red Cross disaster workers that remain equally frustrated. One American Red Cross official wrote to me, “Since Haiti is not associated with the United States like Puerto Rico, American Samoa or Guam, the relief operation for Haiti will be conducted by the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Society. Therefore, DSHR members will not be recruited to respond.”

I have been mulling this one over for the last couple of days and while I understand territorial imperatives, I can share the tremendous frustration of those who could serve and make a difference but will not be called. The US Military and governmental agencies like USAID are logically in the forefront because of their resources, humanitarian spirit and proximity to Haiti. With mostly European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries in the forefront of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Society effort, it has taken them longer to deploy – generally days and hours that we didn’t have. Red Cross Volunteers from the US could have made a difference in the effectiveness of the overall response effort.

If the very capable and available American Red Cross DSHR personnel had been activated several major and very basic concerns would have been addressed.

Where would they stay?
Who would feed them?
Who would provide security and guarantee their protection?
Who would provide their transportation?

Common sense dictates that none of those questions could be adequately answered. The American Red Cross will never deploy Volunteers or paid staff in circumstances that would put them in harms way. USAID put their policy on deployment in perspective, “Volunteer opportunities in disaster settings are extremely rare, and are usually limited to people with prior disaster experience and technical skills (such as health, engineering, etc).”

While we thought that Katrina was a tragedy of unrivaled proportions, it doesn’t begin to approach the monumental tragedy of Haiti. In fact, the dying has only started. This will be Katrina all over again to an exponential magnitude. The 72 hour window of opportunity has all but expired though we hope for more miracles and the chance to rescue more people buried in Haiti’s collapsed buildings. We are in the process of transitioning from “Search & Rescue” to a “Recovery” operation though rescues continue every day. The whole country will have to be literally torn down and rebuilt. Perhaps the Haitians can get it right this time for a better quality of life and retain their beautiful culture.

They are going to need a lot of help, not only to restore infrastructure but to restore their self-confidence and encourage their journey to total self-determination. They need to be enjoined in the spirit of humanitarian cooperation. Then along in the middle of all this mayhem comes Jerk of the Decade (maybe century), aka a deluded and totally unchristian and apparently senile Pat Robertson who once again outrageously explains that the Haitians are inheriting the whirlwind because of their pact with the Devil? Incredible, yes, though I do recall his equally comtemptible comments following 911 and Hurricane Katrina.

Robertson’s exact quote was. “They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the Devil said, okay it's a deal [...] ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other."

Then comes along Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN-yes, it’s his) which later released a statement on its web site offering that Robertson was speaking objectively (?) about Haiti's history that has led "countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed.” What is certain is that Robertson has absolutely no objectivity in this matter and knows nothing about Haitian history and culture.

I certainly agree with UCLA Anthropologist Andrew Apter, well known expert on the African Diaspora including Haiti, Dominican Republic and Cuba that this was a vague and absurdly inaccurate reference to the French colonial response to the successes of the 1790’s Haitian revolution when the slaves were ultimately freed by French legislative decree in 1792.

History Lesson–Haiti 101: The later slave revolt led by the on again/off again Toussaint Louverture was in fact successfully engaged and ultimately won in 1804 by Toussaint’s main lieutenant Jean-Jacques Dessalines when Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France, 44 years before his nephew Napoleon III came to power. Napoleon Bonaparte precipitated the revolt when he tried to reinstitute slavery in 1802. So much for Robertson’s history lesson. Whatever.

Now to those “scholars and religious figures” Robertson referred to. I sure don’t see that count though if they do exist they must reside under the same damned rock currently occupied by the Rev. Dr. Pat Robertson. I watched and listened to his remarks and count CBN‘s (Robertson’s) explanation as pure CYA spin. Absurd! If you believe that I have some pristine land in Haiti for sale… If you want more Haitian history don’t hesitate to go over to Wikipedia. I’ve also been advised that a good treatise on Haitian history is Robert Debs Heinl’s Written in Blood, newly revised edition: The Story of the Haitian People 1492-1995 (2005).

So, jerks aside, we are at the tip of the iceberg in a hurry up scenario that while slow as molasses would be far slower were it not for all those who have engaged the heroic humanitarian effort to help the courageous people of Haiti. Wish I was with you… Well done.


Ned Buxton

Note: The Haitian painting displayed above is by Roger Francois and is entitled, Three Faces

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