John Hughes

Haiti-type disasters require a UN rapid-response unit

In the first critical hours of a disaster, a controlling entity must keep the airport open, clear the roads, maintain order, and prepare for the arrival of help.

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It does not take anything away from the heroism, the generosity, the prayers, and the worldwide fundraising directed at Haiti to observe that the postearthquake relief efforts could have gone better. Haiti’s experience should prompt the creation of a United Nations unit ready to respond at a moment’s notice.

Two weeks after the quake, thousands were sleeping in the open until tents arrived. Hundreds of postoperative patients had no beds for recuperation, and Haitian nurses reported having to treat amputees with bare-minimum painkillers. A procession of refugees streamed out of Port-au-Prince to find food. Families left by sea in an armada of canoes and little boats to find refuge in coastal areas outside the capital.

Journalists are supposed to remain stoic as they report on such scenes, but there was no concealing the emotion of foreign reporters as they held in their arms orphaned babies with nowhere to go, as they watched a girl rescued after a week under the rubble expire hours later, or as their truck raced from crowded hospital to crowded hospital seeking a bed for an injured elderly woman.

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All this was not due to a failing of will. It was not because supplies had not arrived on the island. It was because they were bottlenecked at the capital’s one-runway airport. Haiti’s government was barely functional after its own offices had collapsed, operating in a borrowed police station after the president had set out on his motor bike to round up his ministers. So we saw CNN’s medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, balancing mercy treatment with reportage, and finally, in frustration, hiking out to the airport with a plastic shopping bag to commandeer essential medical supplies from stacked boxes undelivered to the city.

What are the lessons to be learned? Although some miracles enabled trapped victims to be found and rescued after 14 or 15 days, the usual reckoning is that the first three days after an earthquake are the most critical.

In Haiti, the government was unable to be effective until much later. We’ve seen the same postdisaster vacuums in other poor countries, too. In the first critical hours, a controlling entity must keep the airport open, clear the roads, rush food and medical supplies to the needy, maintain order, direct the first search-and-rescue teams, and prepare for the arrival of help and supplies to come in successive days.

Haiti did have a United Nations mission in place as well as some peace-keeping soldiers. But the UN headquarters building pancaked during the earthquake, with major loss of leadership and personnel.

Over the years, there have been various suggestions for a standing UN military force, ranging from a kind of French Foreign Legion to permanent units contributed by cooperating nations, ready for dispatch to quell violence anywhere in the world. It has never gained any political traction. So when the Security

Council authorizes a peace-keeping operation, the UN secretary-general must go cup in hand to countries that might volunteer soldiers. Though the UN has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts, there are times when the contributed units are ill-equipped, ill-disciplined, and unable to communicate with one another.

What the member nations of the UN should consider in light of the Haiti experience is the creation of a civilian rapid-response unit of experienced disaster relief personnel. Armed with their own aircraft, they could be the first in place in any ­disaster-stricken country within hours, not days. Their mission would be to organize and control the airport or airports, maintain critical roads, and manage supplies before the various humanitarian crews and heavy loads of equipment start arriving days later.

The UN is the only organization that might be acceptable to many countries to perform this function. It would involve a short-term surrender of local governmental authority over a small sliver of territory.

Had it been in operation in Haiti, more lives might have been saved.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly print edition. In 1995, he served a one-year term as assistant secretary-general and director of communications at the United Nations.

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