As weather paralyzed the nation's capital with record snowfall, scrambling schedules and disrupting plans, I was able to participate in a short, one-day trip to Haiti. Normally I would think twice about the usefulness of spending less than six hours on the ground in a country, but my deep personal concerns about Haiti made it worth the travel.
Haiti clearly looks bad, but worse problems lurk off the radar and are obvious to anyone who pays attention to the dry land and environmental devastation. The first hints are noticeable from the air -- the stark difference between the Dominican Republic half of the island, still verdant green with tree cover, and Haiti's virtually denuded hillside, not just around the city but extended up to the very tops of the mountain. The Congressional CODEL I traveled with was told that the forest, which used to cover 80% of Haiti, has been reduced to 2%; I couldn't help but wonder where, exactly, that 2% is. Further evidence of the erosion was the river and stream beds that reveal the underlying chalk white limestone residue, a reminder that spring rains -- without hearty soil to provide absorption -- will unleash even more catastrophe.
After just a few minutes on the ground, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude and randomness of the destruction. What I witnessed right after the tsunami in Southeast Asia and after Katrina in New Orleans had a much more distinct pattern.
We stopped at the Cathedral, leaving the motorcade to walk around. Because there have been serious problems with violence, officials were taking no chances and security was tight. The largest prison was emptied when prisoners realized they could escape; the guards were either killed, injured, frightened, or hastening to care for their own families. Patterns of violence and kidnapping have been marked as the prisoners escaped and moved away from the prison.
The basic level of healthcare in Haiti was so poor before the quake that they were already overwhelmed by important, life-saving medical needs. Now they were also having to deal with the demands of the relief effort, which was physically and emotionally taxing. Several people mentioned how they were used to saving legs, not amputating them while working as hard and fast as they could to keep patients alive.
We also had an opportunity at the site to visit with some of the volunteer organizations on the ground providing relief. Mercy Corps was well represented by Bill Holbrooke, the country director and some of his team. I'd been in contact earlier with Neal Keny-Guyer and Nancy Lindborg, who provide outstanding leadership for the organization, and will offer insight and assistance that will make a difference in Haiti for months to come. Mercy Corps was there before the earthquake, committed for the long haul, and will continue its vital operations on the ground.
I met Mercy Corps personnel in Southeast Asia dealing with the tsunami and in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, but this experience seemed to be much worse. Because the population in Haiti is so concentrated, the damage was much more intense. The feeling of desperation in this hemisphere's poorest country - with such a sad history of neglect, violence, repression, and natural disasters - was difficult for all of us to experience; I can't imagine what it's like for people who are fully immersed in the relief efforts. In New Orleans and after the tsunami, there was not the sense of peril that I felt in Haiti. There is a very real threat of another earthquake that could happen at any time, but you don't have to have another earthquake for them to be at risk.
Immediately adjacent to the medical facility, there was a camp the size of several football fields that contained over 6000 people in makeshift tents, with only 12 portable toilets. The potential for further disease and suffering was obvious. One of the most immediate problems is that the field was in a low-lying area, so both the camp and the adjacent medical center had experienced severe flooding within the last several days, even before the rainy season commences in the next two months. This problem will be compounded as water rushes down bare hillsides, many of them destabilized, affecting people who are in temporary and inadequate shelter with nonexistent sanitation.
While it was important to see the impact of the earthquake and to talk to the volunteers and military personnel, the most important part of the trip was a discussion with the President, Prime Minister, and other senior officials. We were there one month to the day after the earthquake on a national day of mourning. There had been controversy about the President's response to the earthquake and his degree of engagement, but we found him to be clear and very much involved.
During the course of our meeting, there was an even greater sense of loss than some of what we saw on the streets. Their whole government center collapsed. The finance minister was able to retain his composure, even though he had lost a son in the quake. The elections scheduled in two weeks had to be postponed not only because of the destruction and devastation of the population, but because all the government officials involved with the election were killed and important materials had been lost.
I was able to make my personal concerns known about what we need to do in partnership with the Haitian government. It was informed by the mixed results of getting people out of harm's way here in the U.S. and abroad to avoid future catastrophes. There has been some progress in the aftermath of the tsunami and with Katrina, but the level of success is still nowhere near what it should be. Rebuilding the capital Port-au-Prince in the same haphazard way - in the same dangerous location, with the same population concentration- almost guarantees future destruction.
I was very encouraged by the President's response that if they only concentrate on the disaster in Port-au-Prince, they would fail. We discussed the recovery, including the relocation in rural towns and villages to make the population safer, improve the environment, and strengthen the long-term economy. The President was clear that it would work only if we can finance the transition so people can support themselves in the interim, away from the population and government center. He spoke not just of recovery but, in his words, of the "the reconfiguration of Haiti," which I found extraordinarily encouraging.
Although the situation in Haiti was worse than I imagined, I was heartened by the mutual understanding and areas of agreement. There is even greater urgency to ease suffering and avoid the next round of catastrophe with the coming rains, inevitable flooding, and probable outbreak of disease. There is real potential to actually fix some of the problems Haiti had before the earthquake, particularly with growing support from the international community and indications of Haiti's commitment and increasing capacity. Now it is imperative that Haiti harness the sense of urgency and the attention of rich nations to help give them the boost they need. As dire as the situation is, a concerted international effort can have a tremendous impact. Much of what needs to be done, while expensive for them, is relatively modest by international standards if the burden is shared.
I left Haiti with a renewed commitment, both personally and as a Member of Congress, to do what I can to make a difference and encourage others to do the same.
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