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Haiti earthquake anniversary: the state of global disaster relief

On the first anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, global disaster relief is under the microscope. A $15-billion-a-year industry with 250,000 workers, the stakes are high – but from each tsunami, quake, hurricane, and drought, we learn what works and what doesn't.

By Ezra FieserCorrespondent, Staff Writer / January 11, 2011

Emmett Fitzgerald, who manages a camp of 26,000 people displaced by the Haiti earthquake, is one of the 250,000 disaster relief nomads who travel the world administering help to victims of such things as tsunamis, quakes, hurricanes, and drought. Global disaster relief has grown to a $15-billion-a-year industry.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and Mexico City

For most of his adult life, Emmett Fitzgerald has hopped around the globe with not much more than a few suitcases of belongings and a big heart, landing in broken or violent or dysfunctional nations. He has built cholera clinics in the jungles of Congo (former Zaire), taught English in remote Tanzanian schools, and identified international health crises for Bill Gates's charity.

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So last January, when he watched TV images of dazed or hysterical Haitians fleeing the still shuddering debris of a magnitude-7.0 earthquake that killed 230,000 in an instant, Mr. Fitzgerald – who was in London at the time – knew he'd soon be in Port-au-Prince. He recalls thinking, as he watched a man save a woman's tent shelter from being destroyed in a tropical downpour, "Yeah, that's where I want to be.' "

By May, he'd hit the ground in the scorching Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. And, as manager of a camp of survivors, he has spent nearly every waking hour since bouncing from the makeshift schools where children are tutored under tents; to the substation for UN soldiers who patrol the camp; to the cholera clinic where patients, if they can sit at all, perch atop cots.

Fitzgerald – a blond Irishman with a perpetual five o'clock shadow and skin reddened by the Haitian sun – is one of tens of thousands of humanitarian nomads who wander the globe responding to disasters – tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, drought, famine, and war. They are aid workers like Fitzgerald who coordinate emergency services, the doctors operating on patients in improvised hospitals, the firefighters pulling bodies from rubble, the volunteers handing out food and water, and the engineers rebuilding homes.

They are sustained by the estimated $15 billion a year that governments, foundations, and individuals send to help their fellow men. That money flows – sometimes in a trickle, sometimes in a flood – ­to people on the ground like Fitzgerald, whose job can be as stultifying as shuffling papers or as electrifying as the time he commandeered a pickup truck to rush a Congolese woman dying of cholera to a clinic and save her life.

Today he manages one of the hundreds of camps strewn across Port-au-Prince – Terrain Acra. The camp sits on a hilly swath of land with a PVC pipe factory on it that's also named after the Acra family, which owns it. It is a jumble of rusting corrugated metal and bright blue tarps that sprang up spontaneously after the earthquake and is now home to 26,000 survivors.


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