The American response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti has proven once again that we still have not developed a strategy to handle disasters and that in spite of record contributions, record supplies and a record number of volunteers, getting the resources to the places where they are needed is far from a proven science.
Current estimates are that about 200,000 people will die in the disaster, up to 400,000 are injured and about 1.5 million homeless. It is possible that a week after the quake up to 100,000 may remained trapped in the debris with very little chance of saving them.
Of the injured, thousands need extensive medical care for crushing injuries and one clinic alone in Haiti is amputating limbs from over 70 people per day. With injuries taking so long to treat infections have already begun killing survivors who are unable to get medical care.
Hundreds of thousands still have no place to stay, inadequate food and drinking water and are in need of medical treatment. While many are dying needless deaths because we failed to respond immediately or failed to treat people who were injured, medical supplies, food and water remain stacked up at the airport and hundreds of rescue workers still cannot get to the places they are needed.
While it is true there are special circumstances that we faced in Haiti, like a collapse of the government and inferior infrastructure before the quake, in addition to the deaths of thousands of relief workers already in Haiti, the excruciating slowness of the response has been deadly and was not necessary.
American disaster response is flawed for several reasons. First is that there are two distinct types of immediate response needed for a tragedy of this magnitude. There is a need for first responders for search and rescue operations of those trapped in the disaster. There is also a need for distribution and recovery operations for the survivors.
Our failure is to think they are part of the same operation. There are so many differences between the two functions they should be treated as separate and distinct disaster responses with different teams, resources and missions. In an earlier story I highlighted the failure of the first response because it was caught up in the bureaucratic function of planning the long term recovery response.
The first response was a miserable failure by any measurement. Rescue teams that did make it to the scene immediately faced enormous problems with security, the selection of targets where the most people could be saved, and a way to get those that were saved medical treatment before infection and injuries killed them. After the first few rescue teams got into the city many others were left stranded at airports trying to get on site and it took them one or more days to even get there.
Once at the scene they had no heavy equipment to assist them, not even a week later, and still had minimal medical facilities available for those they rescued. Earlier I wrote that Haiti had 2000 pieces of construction equipment but none seemed available at the disaster site. Helicopters could have been used to move the machines to the disaster zone. In a week's time many pieces could have been driven to the site but were not. A crucial element of rescue operations must be to get heavy equipment to the site along with medical treatment facilities.
By it's very nature the long term recovery process does take the planning, resources and long term commitment that can be managed quite successfully by the military working with non-government relief agencies and the United Nations. In Haiti this element was more successful than the first response but could be improved in many ways. Food and water distribution and the establishment of a network of medical treatment centers were the areas most in need of improvement.
The Haiti emergency response was certainly better than Katrina but far short of what might have saved the maximum number of lives. Let us hope the Obama administration will put aside pride and take responsibility for what happened or did not happen. In the end all we want is the most successful rescue and recovery operations possible. A thoughtful re-examination of the actions will go a long way toward saving more lives the next time.