In the first critical hours of a disaster, a controlling entity must keep the airport open, clear the roads, maintain order, and prepare for the arrival of help.
It does not take anything away from the heroism, the generosity, the prayers, and the worldwide fundraising directed at Haiti to observe that the postearthquake relief efforts could have gone better. Haiti’s experience should prompt the creation of a United Nations unit ready to respond at a moment’s notice.
Two weeks after the quake, thousands were sleeping in the open until tents arrived. Hundreds of postoperative patients had no beds for recuperation, and Haitian nurses reported having to treat amputees with bare-minimum painkillers. A procession of refugees streamed out of Port-au-Prince to find food. Families left by sea in an armada of canoes and little boats to find refuge in coastal areas outside the capital.
Journalists are supposed to remain stoic as they report on such scenes, but there was no concealing the emotion of foreign reporters as they held in their arms orphaned babies with nowhere to go, as they watched a girl rescued after a week under the rubble expire hours later, or as their truck raced from crowded hospital to crowded hospital seeking a bed for an injured elderly woman.
All this was not due to a failing of will. It was not because supplies had not arrived on the island. It was because they were bottlenecked at the capital’s one-runway airport. Haiti’s government was barely functional after its own offices had collapsed, operating in a borrowed police station after the president had set out on his motor bike to round up his ministers. So we saw CNN’s medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, balancing mercy treatment with reportage, and finally, in frustration, hiking out to the airport with a plastic shopping bag to commandeer essential medical supplies from stacked boxes undelivered to the city.
What are the lessons to be learned? Although some miracles enabled trapped victims to be found and rescued after 14 or 15 days, the usual reckoning is that the first three days after an earthquake are the most critical.