Haiti and Katrina: Differences donors should know

For 2 weeks, our team has seen a strong desire by some to compare the earthquake in Haiti to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In some ways, this is understandable. Particularly for people in the United States, Hurricane Katrina is the closest they can come to understanding what has happened in Haiti. Then we read an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal entitled Haiti: Obama’s Katrina and realized just how deep – and potentially unhelpful – that comparison can be for those trying to understand how best to respond. Yes, both were natural disasters where lives were tragically lost and where the general public was shocked by the level of suffering and devastation. In both, as in all natural disasters, there is an initial period of chaos. However, comparing Haiti to Katrina is an apples to oranges comparison. Key differences:

Pre-existing infrastructure

Katrina took place in the richest country in the Western hemisphere; the earthquake in Haiti took place in the poorest. New Orleans before Katrina was not perfect, but as a US city, its communications, transportation, healthcare, governance, security, education and financial infrastructure were all far stronger than the often shocking conditions that existed in Haiti even before the quake struck.

Capacity of first responders to mobilize

In addition to the lack of pre-existing infrastructure, one of the reasons that the chaos and devastation in Haiti has been so great is that those tasked to coordinate and respond to the crisis were themselves victims. Katrina, while tragic, hit a relatively small area that hosted neither the seat of government nor the financial center of the United States. Relief efforts could be coordinated and mobilized by those who were not directly affected. In contrast, Haiti’s earthquake destroyed the political, economic, and social center of the country. In previous disasters (e.g., the 2004 Asian tsunami, the Sichuan earthquake, and the earthquake in Northern Pakistan), the country’s government, the United Nations (UN), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) already working in those countries could mobilize to respond. In Haiti’s case, the key UN personnel were killed; Haitian government officials lost their lives, families, homes, and offices; and Haiti-based NGOs lost staff and the equipment to respond.

Confusion over who is in charge

Katrina took place in the United States where the US government was in charge of coordinating relief efforts. In all disaster situations, the government of the country is in charge. In Haiti, the lack of pre-existing infrastructure, the Haitian government’s incapacity to respond, and the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis complicated issues of responsibility and coordination. These differences are important to donors not as an academic history lesson. They’re important because a central question that donors ask is, “Am I making a difference?”  But you’ve got to know where you’re starting from in order to see whether you’re making any progress. And you’ve got to know what is realistic to expect in order to celebrate successes and learn from failures. Right now, the folks who are in the best position to answer those questions are the folks on the ground in Haiti. Here’s what they’re saying:

  • The IRC says that water distribution and efforts to reunite homeless Port-au-Prince survivors with relatives in the unaffected areas of the countryside are going extremely well:  http://www.theirc.org/news/haiti-a-glimmer-hope-amid-ruins-port-au-prince-6754
  • Hopital Albert Schweitzer reports, “[volunteer] clinicians have melded almost seamlessly with the Haitian staff; many have been here before, and know how to fit in. Others are adaptable and flexible, and adjust their activities to the existing patterns. All of them work long hours, and make substantial contributions to the hospital’s efforts to manage the surge of unexpected patients.” http://hashaiti.blogspot.com/2010_01_25_archive.html
  • Save the Children, despite having lost their own operations center in the quake, already have 16 safe play centers for children and plans to open 150 over the coming weeks.  “Despite the challenges presented by the scale of this disaster and its impact on the capital city, we are reaching more children and families every day,” said Annie Foster, Save the Children's team leader in Haiti.  http://www.savethechildren.org/newsroom/2010/two-weeks-quake.html
  • The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is reporting that normal activity has returned to some parts of Port-au-Prince, including the resumption of some services like banking, supermarkets, and fuel stations.  The Haitian Government is focused on resuming the country's public administration functions.  The transportation logistics situation is improving daily.  http://www.ochaonline.un.org/haiti
  • Jamie Rudert, a volunteer working in logistics to distribute medical supplies and staff to a border hospital at Jimani says that volunteers are working tirelessly to ensure that survivors are receiving the best medical care possible, and that “given the circumstances, things are surprisingly well-organized.”  They are short on support staff, but the doctors there are making do with what they have, and everyone is pitching in to do jobs they normally wouldn't have to do, such as post-op care.

And finally, from Dr. Vincent DeGennero, Jr., internal medicine resident at Columbia University:

Having been to Haiti twice before, I can tell you that the conditions there were awful before the earthquake and that may color the way that the media who haven't been there before perceive it. I was able to travel throughout most of the city without security or road issues but I did not go to the hardest hit part of Cite de Soleil. I worked in triage, pre-op and post-op and functioned as an ER doc, pediatrician, nurse, psychiatrist and physical therapist. The most inspiring thing for me was this spirit of cooperation. During my four days I worked with paramedics, nurses and doctors from Korea, France, Hungary, and Portugal. There were Jamaican army soldiers and Bolivian UN soldiers providing security for the two hospitals.  People worked 18-24 hour days and never stopped moving. They gave away supplies, free rides, traded patients, gave away food and water all in the name of helping the Haitian people.

Few of these stories have yet made it into the mainstream press coverage. Perhaps, as Dr. DeGennero suggests, it is difficult for reporters to see progress amid poverty.  Nonetheless, these stories are important. Given where things started in Haiti, they are early and hopeful signs – leading indicators that the donors supporting these types of efforts are making a difference.