Thursday, January 21

Haiti Crisis: Rage, Questions, Miracles, Sing, Work, Watch, Roar (UPDATED)

By gum the U.S. military got one pier on the port reopened today, and there is more good news.

10:00 PM ET January 20

CNN's Wolf Blitzer has convened the political panel to discuss Scott Brown's victory but David Gergen, a middle-of-the-road Republican who really doesn't like to criticize Obama or anyone, for that matter, is finding it hard to concentrate on the topic. A strange look has overtaken his bland features, one I've never seen before and I've been watching David Gergen hold forth for years and years. He blurts that 20,000 people are dying every day in Haiti and that Obama really needs to be doing more. I suddenly realize the strange look is rage. I never thought him capable of the emotion.

This is already Obama's Katrina and the U.S. Department of State's worst scandal. And U.S. military reports on progress in Haiti evoke Westmoreland briefing the press on the success of the U.S. policing mission in Vietnam.

Of course there has been progress. Anderson Cooper had little to say tonight about food distribution. He had turned his focus to the need for medical supplies -- a sign that the feeding programs are sorting out. But the question I asked at 6:45 AM on January 14: "Who's in charge?" still blankets Haiti like a shroud.

I channel surf during the CNN ads and end up at C-SPAN broadcast of a Senate committee that's reviewing the report on Flight 253. Questions at that point revolve around who was in charge of decisions about visas for questionable applicants, and who was in charge of the decision to immediately treat the bomber as a criminal and Mirandize him.

Eerily the answers evoke the U.S. rescue effort in Haiti. One agency thought another agency was in charge of the decisions, another agency had no idea that they were supposed to be charge. Many agencies not in sync. The difference is that nobody died on Flight 253 because of bureaucratic snafus.

Questions and Miracles
On Tuesday John Batchelor was very leery of a rosy report about the extent of progress in getting the main port in Port au Prince up to speed. He was right. He asked on his blog earlier today:
SecDef Robert Gates from India is reported to have ordered the Navy to check, clear and rebuild the port asap. The puzzle is why this report came eight days after the port collapsed. The port handled 90% of the goods into Haiti before the event. The USCG has managed to jerryrig a finger pier that can take shallow draft barges and brown water cutters, but not the big ships that are needed. And the thousand foot pier is said to have a 200 foot hole in it so that only one tractor trailer can get through at a time.

The airport is now secured by the military and explaned to up to 120 flights per day, which is a miracle with one strip and no tower, a miracle. But still, one cargo ship can ring in the equivalent of 75-110 planeloads of stuffs. The USN and USCG are trying to use smaller ports to the north to get very heavy fuel oil onto the island for the vehicles. The Navy and Marines are running supplies onto the beach. But without the port, the lifeline to nine million people is unsustainably fragile. The aftershocks will continue. The fault lines show the risk at all times.
Anderson Cooper and another CNN reporter, who speaks French, trade observations about their day. ("We don't start out each morning with a plan, we just get in the car and drive, and whatever stories we find, we stop there and report"):

The UN is denying the report that as many as 20,000 are dying every day, "but the UN can't provide their own numbers. Even if it's not that high, it's still in the thousands," says Anderson.

The other reporter mentions the miracle he found that day: He discovers that a mother and young daughter he'd talked with in the morning had somehow made it onto a ferry that the Haitian government had commandeered. The ferry is only certified to hold 600 but thousands pile on board. They will journey about 100 miles to another part of the country where they can join with relatives.

The reporter is worried that the ferry might sink from overweight. And he learns it has to refuel in Port au Prince -- but with gasoline scarce it might have to sit, fully loaded with passengers, throughout the night, waiting for someone to scrounge the fuel. But the reporter is happy, so happy, to have found the mother and daughter, wreathed in smiles, on board.

Handlers of dogs that hunt for the living in earthquake rubble have learned the dogs can get so depressed when they repeatedly fail to find signs of life they don't want to continue to search. So a little play is staged; a volunteer will hide in a safe part of the rubble. Joyful barking when the dog finds the 'victim;' hope restored, the dog redoubles efforts to look for signs of life. Humans are like that too. It's the little miracles that keep us going amidst so much disappointment and if we call them coincidence in other times -- they are miracles now, and with so much certainty that the discursive part of our mind wisely shuts up.

People are dying because of the simplest things: surgeons in one hospital find they've run out of surgical gloves and they can't get any more. The gloves are there, at the airport, a doctor angrily tells CNN, along with many other critically needed medical supplies. Why is it taking so long to get the supplies distributed? Many reasons, but no real answer.

A hospital runs out of diesel fuel so the electricity is out, which means anesthesiologists there can't function, putting several operations on hold.

A doctor from Virginia Medical Center says the hospital he's working at hasn't had food for four days. "Staff are giving their food to the patients to keep them alive."

Amputees are having to do with Motrin or even nothing to ease the pain. And there is no follow-up care for patients recovering from surgery, no blood pressure monitors, no ICU stay. Many will die from infections that set in after surgery, Dr Sanjay Gupta tells Anderson.

Reports about violence in Port au Prince are vastly overblown, the CNN reporters agree. From their explorations of the city, the reporters see that most of the Haitians in the streets, and waiting in food lines, are mannerly and don't attack foreigners -- this is so even when gangs of looters are at work near foreigners. Anderson says there is too much emphasis on security and not enough on getting supplies out. (Could many UN peacekeepers be transferred to the task of supply distribution?)

My brain suddenly freezes, refusing any longer to take me back over the day's events in Haiti. There is something I'm trying to remember, something I saw or heard the reporters say that I thought important, but it's gone. All I can dredge from memory is footage that Anderson and his cameraman shot of a group of Haitians playing tambourines and singing hymns.

In the morning Brenda at RBO sent me report on the underground economy struggling back to life in Port au Prince. I thought wryly that of course it would be a Wall Street Journal reporter who found the story of entrepreneurship amid the ruins but his tale is a point of cheer if one looks past the part about price gouging:
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti— Economic activity is sprouting up in the rubble of Haiti's ruined capital, much of it fed by looting and blighted by price gouging, but still a vibrant sign of life.

Gina Charmant set up her middleman business Tuesday on a corner of downtown's Rue du Miracle, or Miracle Street. Right across the wrecked and crowded street, more than a dozen men and women swarmed over the tumbled two-story fa├žade of a shop where sandals had been sold before last week's earthquake.

They risked their lives diving into crevices with empty rice sacks, emerging with sacks bulging with footwear and other goods.

They also risked the wrath of police, who every now and then scattered them with long batons.

At Ms. Charmant's stand, a rickety table of wooden slats that before the quake had been another vendor's, she invited looters to let her inspect their booty. If it was right for her, they'd haggle out a price, and she'd stuff it in her own sack.

Three other women were beside her, doing the same thing. In Creole, such women are known as ti machann, or market ladies. They know everything and trade in everything. They were the backbone of Haiti's informal economy before the quake. And even though some of them lost their small inventories in the disaster, they are among the first to seek opportunity, no matter how humble or desperate, among the ruins.


Ms. Charmant declined to tell a reporter what profit she expected to make. But she said she hoped U.S. troops would come soon – she didn't know they had just arrived a few blocks away, at Haiti's wrecked National Palace – and establish order. [This was on Tuesday.]

But wouldn't that put her out of business?

"I'm only doing this because I have to," she said, explaining that her father was killed in the quake. The aid effort, she said, would "give us something to do, some real work, and we won't have to do this any more."
In a flash I saw the looting in a new light. Much of it is actually scavenging -- a hairsplitting moral difference, to be sure, but those tunneling deep into rubble to extract saleable items are risking their lives to forage for things that will probably be ground under bulldozers, anyhow. And it is indeed work -- something to do, something to keep the mind and body occupied, something to help establish a feeling of control for those who don't want to sing or pray.

We watch and wait for bureaucracies and aid agencies to sort themselves out, to mesh their gears. We watch and wait for the port to be dredged of obstacles so the big ships can dock. We watch as the biggest relief effort to ever be given so much live television coverage shows us thousands of people working to save millions.

Tempers can be short, everyone is angry and frustrated about a host of things, but there is a blessing in being there on the ground, working, instead of having to sit and watch from a distance of many miles. There is a kind of peace in action for those who have arrived to help. They arrive from all over the world, many highly skilled at doing their part of the relief and rescue work. These are tough people, very strong inside.

To refuse to watch the events unfold on television or YouTube is to be spared much horror but this is also missing much to inspire. This is a human drama the likes of which have never been seen before.

I have just remembered what a part of me wanted to forget. Anderson Cooper said there are fears that as many Haitians could die in the earthquake's aftermath as from the quake.

I won't think about that while I prepare for sleep. I will think of the millions swept up in the drama, raging, questioning, finding miracles, singing, working, watching, praying. I will think about Joan, a co-worker from long ago. Once a month several of us would converge on a bar after work and take over a bunch of tables. One evening we got too boisterous, which brought scowls from the few other customers. As we were leaving Joan looked back at the suddenly quiet bar and empty tables and whispered, "God may not like us but he'll never forget us." She was so drunk the whisper came out a roar.

1 comment:

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