From New Orleans to Haiti: some notes for the future


Yesterday, BoingBoing posted a link to an article by Glenn Reynolds, which told Americans that the disaster in Haiti was a great reminder to follow the Boy Scout motto: “Be Prepared”.

At first I thought, “Wow, slow news day?” Then I thought, “Fucking ‘Be Prepared’ doesn’t begin to cut it, Glenn.”*

Here is the problem: no one can be fully prepared for disasters like the one unfolding in Haiti. Even in New Orleans, where we had time to hunker down before Katrina made landfall, there was chaos after the storm — and I’m sure that would’ve happened even if we hadn’t been led by a quadrumvirate of incompetents. During disasters, disastrous stuff happens: things get out of hand. And as the Gustav evacuation/revacuation debacle demonstrated, things don’t get any easier the second time around.

But although I don’t think we can be truly prepared for disasters in terms of our physical resources, there are ways to prepare ourselves emotionally and intellectually for the aftermath. Here are a few lessons New Orleans learned after Katrina, and if current media coverage of Haiti is any guide, I’m guessing they’ll be applicable there, too:

Haiti should expect help
The outpouring of emotional and financial support for Haiti has been remarkable. I won’t say that it’s unprecedented, though some of the fundraising methods certainly have been. Even asshats like Rush Limbaugh have encouraged people to support relief organizations (though in Limbaugh’s case, he’s advocated donating directly to agencies rather than through the White House website). As isolationist and blind-eye-turning as some may want to be, at the end of the day, we’re all human, and something inside most of us wants to lend a hand to people in need. That’s why half the world’s NGOs exist.

Haiti should expect interlopers
Many people came to New Orleans after Katrina to lend a hand. Most of them took a look at what needed to be done and did it, carrying us a little further down the road toward normality. Unfortunately, a few alleged “helpers” wanted to rebuild New Orleans in their own image. They didn’t care about our culture, our history, our identity; they wanted to tear things down and put in new clean strip malls. (Note: this group does not include Brad Pitt, whose exercises in experimental architecture and community building have been exemplary, not to mention selfless.) Many of us became a little gun-shy of these — for lack of a better word — carpetbaggers. Worse: Haiti has far fewer resources with which to fend them off than we did.

Haiti should expect to be watched like a hawk
For days, the media has run stories of looting and chaos in the streets. Many people have rightly pointed out that it’s not looting if you’re taking food and water for your family. But as in New Orleans, a smaller population of profiteers have marred Haiti’s entire population. I’m sorry to say it, but the narratives of chaos, blackmail, and instability aren’t likely to stop anytime soon.

Haiti should expect to be blamed
Even now, with search and rescue efforts ongoing, fingers are being pointed. People are forgetting about the vagaries of platectonics and looking for someone to blame for the earthquake. Haiti’s own government will have to shoulder some of that. Haiti’s citizens will, too. They weren’t prepared, the arguments will go. Their response was clumsy. And afterward, they couldn’t be helped. I can’t fathom why anyone would blame Hatians for being dazed and disoriented after surviving a massive earthquake in which tens of thousands perished, but someone will.  

Haiti should expect things to be different
Haiti’s normal will be a “new normal”. Hatians’ circles of friends will change. Habits and patterns will, too. But the shadow of their former lives is still there; it’s a palimpsest of the old Haiti, the one from two weeks ago. If the people of Haiti can see through the piles of rubble and trace the old outlines, they’ll be okay. Or not okay, but better.

If you haven’t already given, please consider doing so. I recommend Doctors Without Borders, since they seem to be one of the few organizations on the ground in Haiti that’s already doing real work, but nearly any major aid organization will be happy to receive your gift.

*NB: I’ve been a regular BoingBoing reader for ages, and I’ll continue to be, but I don’t think this piece was up to snuff.

2 thoughts on “From New Orleans to Haiti: some notes for the future

  1. malibu boy

    I keep hearing good feedback for both Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health. Thanks for the article. I think one of the worst things I read lately about Katrina that continues to haunt – is a book about a NOLA local, "Zeitoun". I wish more lessons could be learned from each disaster.

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