Back in September 2004, Hurricane Jeanne whipped through Gonaives, shredding tin roofs and cement edifices as if they were putty. In its wake, Jeanne left more than 3,000 dead and an untold amount of destruction.
At the time, the Haitian diaspora sprang into emergency mode. Distribution spots were selected, a team of volunteers collected tons of goods and the donations were shipped to Haiti. When the donated cargo arrived in Haiti, however, it sat at the ports for years. The goods never reached those who needed the goods most urgently.
The problem was that the organizations, in their zeal to help, left out one step. They did not coordinate with a local entity or the Haitian government to confirm whether the items were being collected or shipped through the proper channels. Or, even if these were items that people needed.
Failure to distribute goods
Seventeen years later, we appear to be making the same mistake with the response to this earthquake, which smacked the southern flank of the country. I have attended a couple of Zoom meetings with community leaders and Brooklyn’s elected officials lately. The playbook they’re using is no different than the inadequate one used in 2004.
The New York City’s police precincts have been designated as drop off locations, to be collected by members of the Haitian Law Enforcement Fraternal Organization, or HALEFO, and shipped to Haiti. I know that there have been few, if any, meaningful conversations with officials at the Civil Protection agency in Haiti to ask them what it needs.
These times of crises in Haiti have become a chance for diaspora to clear out their closets and pantries, a feel-good way to get rid of stuff that they haven’t used but don’t want to throw away. So, Haiti, the country that is in perpetual crisis mode, once again provides the opportunity. But the reality is that the Haitian people need the junk as much as you do.
In the last couple of days, there has been some criticism of diaspora groups and individuals who want to send water to Haiti, even though there is plenty of water there for sale or free. Meanwhile, a shipment of goods was confiscated at the Dominican Republic border in Malpasse.
Disaster relief is a profession, not a hobby
Disaster relief is a profession, not a hobby. The people who toil in this field have terminal degrees and years of experience. There are many aspects of emergency management that the average person simply doesn’t know.
I do understand the human impulse to help, but if you don’t know how to swim, would you jump into deep water to save someone whose life was in danger? Or would you find help for the person in peril? Of course, you would do the ladder because that’s common sense.
And so we should use common sense here and consult with the organizations on the ground to ask them what they need and how we can best help. It’s as simple as that. I know that a group of a dozen doctors from New York left for Haiti. We know they’re needed and should provide a respite to local physicians, who must be exhausted by now.
What the country needs right now, besides health care professionals, is money. I know this comment is sensitive given the amount of money that was wasted or outright stolen by many groups after the 2010 earthquake that left more than 250,000 dead.
I suggest that people find an organization or a few and make modest donations to each so that they can provide aid to the needy. Find groups that have experience and a proven track record of working in the area or those who are professionals. After several requests and with some trepidation, we put together a list of these groups that are deserving of your support. There are many others, but we wanted to keep it short and not issue a laundry list of aid groups.
Squandered opportunity to govern
While I grieve for my fellow Haitian compatriots’ misfortune, I’m also livid at the governmental apparatus that is responsible for their sufferings. Yes, earthquakes and hurricanes are natural disasters but the catastrophe they have wrought are the results of the government’s callousness and craven disrespect for the lives of the Haitian people.
After the 2010 earthquake, there were lots of talk of a new Haiti. People began to reimagine a place where departments had fair resources and governmental administrations to decentralize Port-au-Prince because the earthquake’s death toll made it clear that there were too many people in the metropolitan area.
There were also conversations about building codes, and how they were going to be reinforced and make sure buildings that were destroyed or damaged were fixed following the laws in the books so that next time we would be prepared and soften the blow.
They were just that. Talk. After the late president René Préval handed power to Michel Martelly and money started pouring in, all of these plans were cast aside and reality set in. Martelly, despite having the wind at his government’s back, squandered an opportunity to bring a new Haiti as was envisioned.
He spent most of his time in office making false and empty promises. Ever the showman, his team filled the pages of social media with renderings of projects that never came to fruition. Many people in the diaspora thought that these were actual developments that had been executed.
His successor, Jovenel Moïse, who was assassinated on July 7, was never up to the task for a myriad of reasons we’ve reported over and over. The media, including the Haitian Times, never took these bureaucrats to task for dropping the ball on decentralization and making sure that the country was more prepared to handle the yearly hurricane season and the earthquakes that scientists have now predicted will come at least every five years.
In 2019, the Haitian Times was granted a reporting fellowship from the Pulitzer Center to follow up on what progress, if any, Haiti had made a decade after the earthquake. The reporting, a 10-part series, was as devastating as the earthquake itself. By then, the country had become a literal war zone. I wanted to retrace my steps from 2010 so I flew back into Santo Domingo. Unlike in 2010, I was stuck in Santo Domingo for four days unable to find transportation to Port-au-Prince because it was too dangerous.
Once we were in Haiti, few people cared to talk about the earthquake. Although it occurred a decade ago, to most people it might as well have been a rumor. Earthquake was the last thing on people’s minds.
Let’s be ready to assist long after
In the last four years, Haitian experts have told me incessantly that Moïse was the source of all that afflicts Haiti. Today Moise is hopefully resting in peace outside Cap Haitien, and yet the country faces another crisis that we’ll see leaders unable to rise to the level and turn the country around. They don’t have the ability and they don’t have the will. The work is too hard and they don’t have the patience. They want junk food and not a nutritious meal that we need to heal.
To my fellow diaspora, this is where patience comes in as you want to heal. Right now, it’s the easy part. The professionals are on the ground and providing needy assistance. The problem starts when they leave. That’s when you should be ready with a plan to assist.
“It’s a moment in my life that I will never forget,” sang Ti Manno in his mega hit David, which was a hurricane that inflicted damages to Haiti in 1979. “Every time I think about it, I weep because we went through a precipice.”
I’m tired of crying. Aren’t you?