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Haiti Is a Critical Test for the Obama Administration

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The reports coming in from Haiti are horrific, and our deeply impoverished neighbor has once again plunged into chaos and despair. This is a critical moment for the United States and the Obama administration to demonstrate that the lessons of our government's shameful response to Katrina have truly been learned. While it is true that New Orleans is an American city, and Port-au-Prince is not, Haiti is connected to our country by geography, family and history. We need to demonstrate American capacity and compassion in equal measure in the following weeks and months, and especially in the next 24 hours.

According to the White House website this morning, President Obama had directed his National Security staff to undertake an "aggressive, coordinated effort" to respond to the disaster:

"Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon convened a meeting in the White House Situation Room at 10:00 PM this evening with senior representatives from: State, USAID, USUN, DOD, SOUTHCOM, JCS, DHS, Coast Guard, and National Security and White House Staff to coordinate the government-wide response, per the President's request."

Implementation of disaster relief is one of the most complex and challenging tasks of logistics and management. Local communications and transportation infrastructure are typically not available, and order must somehow be made out of chaos. After Katrina, we saw that Wal-Mart seemed to have more capacity on the ground than the United States government. As impressive as Wal-Mart's organization can be, the U.S. military is even more impressive, and its capacity for rapid deployment and logistical support must be utilized aggressively and immediately.

This is not to argue that private, non-profit and international efforts should be set aside. All of those efforts are critical and necessary. This is a catastrophe that requires rapid and massive deployment of resources. Here at Columbia University, a number of our faculty, students and researchers are already in Haiti working on projects for the United Nations. Even before this latest disaster, they and many colleagues from private and international organizations were working to understand the conditions in the country and assist the Haitian people. However, these efforts must now be deferred to deal with this emergency. All emergency response actions must be competently organized and coordinated, and the United States government, with direction from Haitian officials, must play a large role.

The Obama administration is now one week away from completing its first year in office. It has faced numerous challenges and tests, but in many ways this may well be the most critical. The role of the United States in the world and in this hemisphere is being redefined. What better way to demonstrate American ideals, values, confidence and capacity than a rapid and well-managed relief effort? The President and his top aides should treat this catastrophe as if it were happening on American soil and give it the hour-to-hour attention we would devote to such a crisis at home. Furthermore, the President should go to Haiti as a symbol of our commitment as soon as it is secure enough to assure his safety.

There is a broader lesson to be taken from this disaster for both the United States and what we sometimes optimistically call the "community of nations." As the world becomes more crowded and urbanized, the impact of natural disasters will only grow. It is not that we are seeing more hurricanes, earthquakes and floods than we used to, but rather that more people are in harm's way than ever before. The lesson here is that we must build a global network of emergency response capacity that is far greater than the one we have now. When there are half a dozen major natural disasters in a year, they should no longer be defined as emergencies, but as periodic and almost predictable events. A larger amount of resources must be devoted to this critical governmental function, both here and throughout the world.

I know I am far from the first person to advocate for such capacity, but let's try to think about it now -- before post-disaster amnesia sets in. These types of disasters are going to become more common in the future, and as bad as they are, slow and inadequate response and reconstruction can turn a crisis into a catastrophe. Step 1 is a rapid, competent and visible American response to Haiti's earthquake. Step 2 is developing an enhanced global disaster response capacity. Both steps require personal leadership from President Obama -- now.