To Really Help in Haiti, Help at Home

The goal of this post isn’t to rant, but instead to educate.  I apologize in advance if I hurt someone’s feelings or you don’t agree with my point of view, but I think it’s time to give a few facts about disaster response to the world at large.

Long post WARNING, bear with me.

As a long time Red Cross disaster services volunteer, I have a unique perspective on what is currently happening in Haiti and I want to share that with you.  Within hours of any large-scale disaster I usually receive several phone calls from friends and family asking me if I’m on my way to the latest calamity.  It’s a fair question since I’ve spent more than 17 years responding disasters all over the country and because I’m part of a special team that typically deploys within hours.  In the case of Haiti, my answer has been “not yet.” I’ll get into the reasons why in a minute.

The very next statement is typically something like, “I wish I could do what you are doing or help in some way.”  And my answer is always, “You can do what I’m doing and there are hundreds of other ways you can help as well.”   I’ll share with you some very clear-cut steps you can take to help Haiti from Home.  But first I need to give you a little disaster background.

I think that it was fairly apparent from the video footage that we’ve seen from Haiti, that there was a huge amount of infrastructure destroyed.  But for most Americans, that really doesn’t mean much.  At the worst, we are usually without only one or two pieces of our infrastructure functioning at a time.  Perhaps the phones don’t work, or the power is out, or the water isn’t drinkable, or a road has collapsed or a bridge is out, but it rare for us to have the “perfect storm” where all of those situations strike at the exact same time.  Even our worst natural disasters rarely have that happen in this country.  And when a disaster like Katrina strikes, help (food, water, shelter) is only a few hours away.

Haiti is an island.  This complicates an already unbelievably complicated situation even more.  Without an airport and a seaport functioning at capacity, it’s like trying to move without arms and legs.  Even if the resources are ready to go there, they can’t be moved in country fast enough. Ever single square foot of space on a plane or a ship becomes incredibly valuable.

Earlier this week I read a story in our paper about a local dentist who jumped on a plane and headed to Haiti. I’m sure you’ve heard similar stories in your area.  They make me so very sick and sad.  Now, in his defense, the dentist had been running a clinic in  Haiti for 20 years and probably had some relationships and language skills that made it easier for him to be there. He has apparently been doing some basic medical things like helping set broken legs and deliver babies. So in that sense he was probably a better choice than you or even me.  But I still think it was very selfish.

In a disaster situation like the one in Haiti, it’s not enough to have basic disaster experience or speak the language or even have resources. You MUST have highly specialized skills that are appropriate for the initial stages of a calamitous disaster–water purification engineering, food distribution specialization (which is extremely important to help avoid riots) and medical trauma skills.  Anything less right now is literally taking the food and water out of someone’s mouth.  He filled a space that could have been filled by someone with more skills and his presence there may have actually caused someone’s demise.

It is arrogance to believe that just because we have a particular set of skills and resources that it’s enough to give us the “right” to go help in a country that has such severe needs.  If my many years of disaster work have taught me nothing else it is this:  even I with my mass casualty disaster experience and basic French language skills am not the best person to deploy at this time. Later perhaps, but not now.

Let me tell you about the member of our team who was sent to Haiti.  She’s a trained trauma flight paramedic with thousands of hours of experience, she’s multi-lingual and she has years of experience working self-sufficiently in third-world countries.  I’ve worked with her on mass casualty disasters and she’s level-headed and calm.  And, this is important, she’s the only one from our team there right now.  We have over 50 team members who could go, but a very strong case has to be made that it is worth the risk that we might not do more harm than good.

And let me tell you something else, there is no hurry.  Yes, there is a crisis in Haiti and millions of dollars, thousands of people and dozens of hospitals are all pouring into that country.  But this disaster isn’t gong to be over tomorrow, or next year or most likely, even this decade.  It’s going to take billions of man hours, dollars and people to help Haiti recover.  It won’t be done overnight.

So what can you do?  You can raise money. That’s the big one.  Don’t collect clothes or water or food to ship to Haiti, it won’t help.  After major disasters in this country, Hurricane Andrew or Hurricane Katrina, they have had to destroy truckloads of wasted resources because they  weren’t the right thing, they became mildewed and unusable or they didn’t get to where they were needed.  The only thing worse than having no help is having the wrong help.  Shoes for your feet won’t fill your belly.

I’m not sure why people are so reluctant to believe that money is the best way to help.  Perhaps this disaster will be the turning point in that mindset.  If you must collect clothes, have a garage sale and send the proceeds. Or host a bake sale, it doesn’t matter how you raise the funds, raise them! Remember that money has power far beyond what it can purchase, it can also  re-start a nation’s economy, making sure people are employed and able to help themselves as much as possible.  (And while I’m on the subject, I think this would make a great economic thesis topic for a graduate student–hint, hint.)

I promised to tell you what you could do to help here at home to make an impact on Haiti.  We all have a lot of problems in our own backyards, so remember that as you read this list:

  1. Raise money for a trusted charity! (I know you’ve already heard this one, but it bears repeating because it is THAT important!) Remember that there are already dozens of disaster charities in place in Haiti who can use your support, Red Cross, CARE, and many others.
  2. Those same groups have needs here at home.  Volunteering with them locally may help free up resources and better trained volunteers for Haiti. Find your local Red Cross here.
  3. Train for the next disaster now.  Disasters happen all the time.  A house fire or a flood may not seem like a big deal (and usually doesn’t get near the media attention), but trust me, from my own personal experience I can tell you the most profound disaster you will ever experience will be the one that happens to you. And someone who is trained to help can make all the difference!  Getting training now will also allow you to be ready to help during the next big disaster.
  4. There are amazing groups like Crisis Commons who are using their technically skills at Crisis Camps all over the United States (and Columbia now too!) to help solve issues that have been presented to them by various non-profits and others in the know.  So far they’ve worked on more than a dozen projects.  even if you aren’t technically inclined, they need to people to help them out. Check them out here.
  5. Use social media to spread the word about the amazing things that are being done to help in Haiti.  Let’s celebrate as much good news as possible! And, of course, you can use social media to help raise awareness and funds–have some fun with it.  Rally your friends to sponsor you in a crazy dare (notice I didn’t say dangerous) or offer to publicly humiliate yourself if they’ll send money to a designated charity.
  6. Join a completely non-disaster non-profit agency as a volunteer and dedicate your service to the people of Haiti.  Every time you give of your time and talents, you make this world a better place, whether it’s in Haiti or at home. And isn’t that the real point?

If you absolutely feel like you have to go to Haiti at some point to help:

  • Plan your trip for at least a year from now, if not two.
  • Have a clearly defined reason for going,beyond just “helping.”
  • Get specialized training beyond what you may already have.
  • Practice self-sufficiency, try primitive camping for a week or more.
  • Learn Creole.
  • Establish a support system of people or an organization in Haiti.
  • Raise money to fund your trip and take enough with you to make a difference.


Filed under Disaster

8 responses to “To Really Help in Haiti, Help at Home

  1. Nancy


    Well, I’ve been looking for an outlet for my frustration for a couple of things I’ve seen this week, as well, so thanks for giving it to me. And do remember I love and respect you, but I must disagree…

    And while I believe this is correct, in theory, from what I can see this time, in practice, it may have proven to be not so much.

    The dentist who jumped on a plane is a good friend of mine who is a seasoned international missionary with much experience dealing with the poorest of the poor (I have had the priviledge of serving alongside him on a few occasions). While in the US he is restricted to duties consistent with his dental degree, in developing nations he is considered a member of the medical profession and regularly depended upon for expanded duties including triage. He extremely level headed, calm and resourceful, and practiced in many aspects of emergency aid. He is also one of the most caring and gentle people I’ve ever known, with a special heart for and gift with children. He is a talented photographer to boot, and his coverage of his Haiti experience has already helped to raise tens of thousands of dollars from people here in central Indiana. I’d love for you to meet him sometime. He is really quite special.

    I know the Red Cross representative you speak of, as well, and agree that she is terrific, and extremely qualified in skill and experience.

    Where I disagree with you, as I said, in practice, is that I’ve been receiving updates from both of these workers, and while my dentist friend reports how many broken limbs he has set and casted on a particular day (while it is a basic medical need, in the immediate aftermath of any earthquake, it is by far the most in demand of triage needs), and how many babies he has delivered… what I’ve seen from the Red Cross worker is a day of coordinating in the DR, reports on how many Red Cross national societies are responding, a full day of packing up a Red Cross headquarters when their building didn’t pass inspection, then a day of unpacking and setting up once more when officials changed their minds… I only saw one report from her in which she had actually interacted with victims of the earthquake, and to my utter horror, with more than $100 million pledged or received by the Red Cross, her response to the victim’s request for mattresses was that it was not a priority. Anyone who has ever worked in a developing nation knows that mattresses are not necessarily for comfort, rather for protecting people, especially children and elderly, from sleeping on the ground at night–the number one way that parasites infest their bodies. And while treating the head wounds of children would take precedence, she’s not doing that, nor is anyone from the American Red Cross delegation.

    I know I’m a bit cranky regarding this, but why does it always seem like the Red Cross works overtime to find ways to get out of giving people what they need?

    I know how it is supposed to work. And I know how it actually works. And after years of responding to disasters both domestically and around the world with the Red Cross, I believe that no organization does it better…eventually.

    Still, I would never discourage someone who has a support system on the receiving end, resources, skills, experience, love and compassion, from actually getting in there and doing what it always, ALWAYS takes the larger, more beaurocratic organizations precious time…time that could mean the difference between life and death…to begin to do. With this great number of people in need, I believe there is need for both, and room for both.


    • yourprchick

      Fair enough Nancy. I probably should have said that I don’t personally know this dentist and have no idea of his background and qualifications, obviously the local media has done a poor job of covering those details. On the flip side, I have had numerous phone calls and emails requesting my help in getting people and goods to Haiti to help. THAT is the reason I wrote this blog. Many of these folks, while qualified in one way, are unqualified in numerous other ways and simply do not belong there!

      And, to be honest, I’m even more frustrated by the celebs who are traveling to Haiti. Their presence there practically guarantees that the relief effort will grind to a halt wherever they are that day. I agree that they raise awareness and funds, but isn’t there another way???

      Lastly, you are correct, any large organization is going to move more slowly than an individual. And I’m not discounting that there are individuals who are well suited to be there (as you have made the case with the dentist) but it is the large organizations that have the staying power and the resources to be there for the long term. And in the case of the Red Cross, it was the Haitian Red Cross volunteers who were first on the scene doing what needed to be done. The American Red Cross and other Red Cross’ took days to get there (largely because of distance, not desire). The job now is to coordinate all the many service delivery groups and people into the best possible outcome for the Haitian people and that’s why I’m so pleased with the work being done at the Crisis Camps–well away from the disaster–using technology to solve many of the problems that both you and I know exist. They are currently hard at work on two Disaster Accountability projects that will improve service delivery and help capture best practices.

      As I said at the beginning of this blog, it is absolutely fair to disagree with my post, as you have. But the reality is that I think we both agree that the most important thing is getting help to people in need as quickly as possible. My post was primarily meant to educate those with very little disaster experience and was only my perspective on how that help should/could be delivered, it’s certainly not the only way… I think discussions like this are invaluable to help hone best responses and outcomes in the future.

      Best Wishes,

      • Nancy

        Hey Jill,

        I should probably tell you that I’ve had 2 different teams approach me about leading/accompanying them into Haiti so they can do things like locate people’s loved ones and, believe it or not, set up a basketball game between Haitian and Senegalese teens for a documentary.

        My counsel to them was yours–nearly every point of it.

        And I absolutely cannot stand the whole celebrities “helping” thing. Try 6 months to 6 years from now when a morale boost might be in order and a little media attention might actually do some good.

        🙂 n

  2. Jill, brava to you for having the courage to speak the truth. I’ve gotten the same sort of inquiries you have, and I’ve urged my friends and colleagues to hold those garage sales and bake sales, send their funds and their heartfelt prayers, and commit to helping here at home where there are plenty of needs to be met.

    Months from now when Haiti has faded from the headlines, will we be able to sustain this relief efforts? How long did it take before the 2004 tsunami victims were forgotten? Rebuilding is still well underway in so many nations. This will be our bigger challenge to come.

    Gayle Falkenthal
    Disaster Public Affairs volunteer
    American Red Cross, San Diego CA

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention To Really Help in Haiti, Help at Home « YourPRChick's Blog --

  4. yourprchick

    Thanks to @allierose for Tweeting this link that goes even further in the debate:

  5. Jen

    Really good points. Thanks for clarifying and pointing us all in some other directions.

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