Haiti earthquake -- a call to a common humanity

The US and the international community are quickly mobilizing to help. But Haiti will need sustained assistance.

After a massive earthquake struck Haiti on Tuesday, thousands of survivors gathered in public squares and sang hymns. People poured out gratitude for lives saved, and prayed for help.

Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, is unable to help itself in the conventional sense. But its people are resilient, having endured decades of poverty, violence, political upheaval, and natural disasters. That toughness is a plus as they pull each other from rubble, comfort each other, and generally try to work through the wrecked property and lives resulting from an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0.

This country of 10 million people, however, has virtually no infrastructure, no rescue teams, very little earth-moving equipment, and only a tiny police force. In the hard-hit capital of Port-au-Prince, about 60 percent of the buildings were shoddily built and unsafe in normal circumstances, according to a 2008 estimate by the mayor.

That makes this tiny Caribbean nation heavily dependent on quick, substantial, and sustained international aid for recovery. The world, including countless individuals, poured such aid into Asia when it was overwhelmed by a tsunami in December 2004. But after a severe earthquake struck Pakistan in 2006, the United Nations had to plead for more donations and speedier assistance. Donor fatigue had set in after giving for the Asian tsunami and hurricane Katrina, and other news pushed the quake from the headlines.

The international aid community has a significant presence in Haiti, including 9,000 UN troops that act as a peacekeeping force. The aid community responded quickly in 2008 when Haiti was whipped by four hurricanes. The United States, for instance, sent a military hospital ship. But these various agencies and government representatives have themselves suffered losses of personnel and property in the quake and are having to bring in help from outside.

The response so far has been encouraging. Members of the Obama administration met through the night Tuesday, and the director of the US Agency for International Development has been assigned to coordinate the US response. The US Coast Guard is sending cutters and aircraft to assess and assist, and American search-and-rescue teams will be arriving in Haiti today and tomorrow. Many other countries, from Mexico to France, are also pitching in.

Help is also being swiftly mobilized by global aid groups such as Oxfam and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Télécoms Sans Frontières, an independent organization, is working with the UN to get phones working – a must for coordinating assistance. Individuals can already donate via the Internet and by texting (see “Help for Haiti” at www.whitehouse.gov).

Given crunched finances around the world, nations and individuals may feel strapped. Other events could soon crowd out news of the troubles in Haiti. But as President Obama said Wednesday, “we are reminded of the common humanity that we all share.” That shared humanity must now work to produce a sustained response.

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