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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.