Thursday, January 21, 2010

Heroes in Haiti

As the news rolls in on the devastation in Haiti, it is great to hear the stories of professionals rushing in to provide support. One of my favorite bloggers, Paul Levy, provides reports from doctors on the scene at

Could the aid be faster, more coordinated? Paul Sullivan, contributor to the Metro, asks the same question. He challenges the legitimacy of the stars at the Golden Globes displaying ribbons when they are robed in luxury. I disagree on that point. Everyone does what they do best, and celebrities are good at encouraging fans to care and give. Many of the starlets donated their gowns, and other big donations were announced.

But back to the questions; could the aid be faster, more coordinated? I watched with horror the molasses-slow response in the New Orleans disaster, until, finally, the military were invited in. Armies go where they are called, and there is a clear line of command. There is focus in their actions, and they know the job is to get-er-done. They are prepared to handle chaos, broken communication, and broken infrasture. They have their own corps of engineers to build roads and bridges where their are none, and to do it quickly.

Paul Sullivan asks, "Haven't we learned anything about nature's capacity to kick the poor of the world in the teeth, and can't we get there with food, water and rescue faster? Why does it always seem that the governments of the world have been taken by surprise, and it's up to you and me to bail them out? Isn't it time to challenge the script?"

I agree. And in the developed world at least, there are domestic government departments dedicated to handling disaster. These are the disaster preparadeness folks, and they have gone to considerable effort to develop plans in case of disaster. The idea is that the assigned people can open their manual, follow the chain of command, and swiftly respond to any emergency that may emerge.

These departments emerged after World War II first as a response the threat of nuclear strike, and gradually expanded to handle all possible threats. These days there are plans for pandemics, plans for terrorist threats, floods, fire, and others. The H1N1 provided a test to these plans, and natural disasters such as the Quebec ice storm. Bureaucrats will do that. When their original purpose begins to fade, they create new reasons to keep their jobs.

When I considered the origins and makeup of these disaster preparadness groups, I worried that their very design has a fatal flaw. The leaders and committee members of these agencies by nature and career are not risk-takers. They are meeting mavens and manual makers. When disaster hits, response by their very nature is cautious, slow. What we need people who know how to get-er-done when the job is not orderly. Right now these are the people of the Red Cross and the army. Why? They routinely work in chaotic conditions. The job attracts a whole different kind of person. They are experienced and ready.

I've always thought that developed countries should have disaster response teams geared to help anywhere in the world they are needed. Then, if disaster should strike at home, these same experienced teams are ready to provide swift response. Right now we have the army and the red cross, doctors without borders, and others. When Haiti is restored to some sort of order, perhaps we should ask them what such a team should look like.