Flood of aid to Haiti looks like chaos, but normal

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Relief supplies are coming into quake-struck Haiti without people knowing. Coordination seems missing. A United Nations official is calling it “chaos.” All this while victims aren’t being helped.

And for a catastrophe, as strange as it sounds, this is normal.

This happened in the Asian tsunami in 2004 and is to be expected. Experts often talk about “the disaster after the disaster.” And it usually is worse when the initial disaster is so stunning and heart-wrenching. So much to do, so little time, so many earnest people wanting to help, so many victims needing help. It is so overwhelming it can cause a paralysis of inaction — frantic activity that isn’t efficient. It cries out for someone to coordinate it all.

“This is what a catastrophe looks like,” said Kathleen Tierney, director of the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazard Center. But “it shouldn’t be confused with chaos,” she said.

At least not yet.

What will make a difference between chaos and successful relief is coordination, Tierney and others said.

“The coordination takes a little bit of time to get settled and when it does, it usually works,” said Dr. Michael VanRooyen, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. “The challenge is really the hair-on-fire activity.”

VanRooyen — a veteran of Haitian hurricanes, Turkish earthquakes, and many African disasters — said coordinating the flurry of activity, relief supplies, and need to assess the problem is key in the first few days after a catastrophe. Sometimes even at the expense of helping a victim in front of you, he said.

“It’s the reverse of ‘Just don’t stand there, do something’,” VanRooyen said.

Along with medical aid, for victims of the earthquake, the most immediate need, something that could be a matter of life or death in the next day or two, is water, said former top FEMA official Mark Merritt, president of the disaster consulting firm James Lee Witt Associates. Victims can go longer without food than without water, but food is the next thing needed, followed by shelter.

Water “is going to be a major challenge,” United Nations humanitarian chief John Holmes said at a news conference in New York on Thursday. The World Food Program has planes on the ground with emergency food. UNICEF is sending water facilities, water purification tablets and rehydration liquids.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has estimated that 3 million Haitians will need relief. With that number, humanitarian agencies can then use a 344-page online handbook, called The Sphere Project, to estimate just how much food, water and emergency housing materials will be needed, VanRooyen said. That online tool was created after agencies tripped over themselves trying to bring relief to Rwanda in 1994.

It says in an emergency, each victim needs two to four gallons (7.5 to 15 liters) of water a day to drink and for hygiene, as well as 2,100 calories from food. That means that in order to meet the needs of all 3 million victims, relief workers must supply 6 to 12 million gallons of water a day.

But in the big picture Haiti is at a crucial point: Coordination of relief is as vital as water for the thirsty and food for the hungry, experts said.

“If you don’t get coordination, the water and food isn’t going to get out either,” said Richard Olson, a professor at Florida International University who directs the Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas project.

The “backbone of any disaster success” is coordination, added Lowell Briggs of York College, who has worked with international emergency services.

And usually in a catastrophe like this, especially since the 2004 tsunami, that job falls to the United Nations.

Unfortunately, the U.N. itself is a victim in this disaster. At least three dozen U.N. workers are dead and about 200 missing, including the mission chief for Haiti, after the headquarters collapsed in Tuesday’s quake.

“We look to the United Nations and they are one of the major victims organizationally,” Olson said. “This is worse because the U.N. is a pretty devastated organization.”

Holmes said his agency is still up to the job.

The disaster and coordination team arrived Thursday, Holmes said. That will help direct people when they arrive and avoid duplication and gaps.

“Inevitably, the reality is that however fast we try to move, it will always be too slow for those people who are on the ground, who are waiting patiently for help,” Holmes said. “If we could snap our fingers and make these things arrive, we would do that. But that’s not possible.”

Olson and Tierney both were pessimistic about coordination improving any time soon.

“That coordination challenge will increase dramatically in the next few days,” Olson said. That’s because the seaports are not usable yet and everything — aid and people — has to come through the one airport.

The U.N.’s Holmes acknowledged “a bit of a blockage at the moment” at the airport.

“There’s a large number of planes trying to get in there,” Holmes said. “The runway is fine. The control tower is not fine, so it’s not got the capacity that it would normally have. People are working extremely hard to try to fix that. But it can’t be fixed and it means, for example, that arriving in darkness is extremely difficult.”

And once food, water and other items arrive at the airport and are unpacked, there’s another big problem: how to get them to the rest of Haiti, when normally bad roads are now unpassable because of the earthquake. Helicopters and even Normandy invasion-style landing crafts are needed, said Merritt.

“The biggest challenge, once you get past the basis of 9 million people that are going to need something, is the basic fact that this is an island,” Merritt said.

Other upcoming issues include disposal of bodies of victims and debris from the earthquake. The presence of bodies is disturbing but they do not pose any unusual disease risk despite a common disaster myth, VanRooyen and Tierney said.

Another problem is that people want to give anything to help, even things that aren’t needed, experts said. In 1992, after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in the dead of summer, people sent winter coats.

“People will be sending winter coats to Haiti as well,” Tierney said.

When it comes to coordinating after a disaster, Tierney and others pointed to China’s military-run relief effort after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province as an example of what works.

“Structure was there pretty quickly because of the nature of the state where it occurred,” Tierney said.

But Haiti didn’t have much infrastructure before the earthquake so “to expect order under those circumstances, that’s dreaming,” Tierney said.

Tierney said a disaster is when a city or nation’s social system breaks down. A catastrophe is when the social system breaks down and the infrastructure that usually responds to a disaster is gone too, she said.

“Maybe that’s what we can hope for: that we can turn a catastrophe into a garden variety disaster as quickly as possible,” Tierney said.


Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations in New York.


On the Net

The Sphere Project: http://www.sphereproject.org/