The response to Haiti's earthquake must measure up to the disaster

Thursday, January 14, 2010

THE DEADLY EARTHQUAKE that struck Haiti Tuesday afternoon devastated a nation that, in the best of times, exists on the edge. Although the death toll is anyone's guess at this point, it seems likely to be in the tens of thousands at a minimum, given the proximity of the quake's epicenter to the densely packed capital of Port-au-Prince, the rickety dwellings in which so many of the city's 2 million people lived and the near-knockout blow the quake delivered to the country's capacity to respond. The Red Cross estimates that as many as 3 million people, a third of Haiti's population, may be affected; many of them are homeless. Even in a country as notoriously blighted and calamity-prone as Haiti, this is a disaster of the first order.

The international relief effort must be commensurate with the scale of this catastrophe. Devising and coordinating an effective response will be a logistical nightmare given the damage, including the crippled communications and electricity networks. The port and airport are damaged, and the road connecting the airport to the city is smashed. First responders such as the 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti are an asset already in place, but with the collapse of their headquarters, they are struggling to cope with their own problems. Aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children, although they already had hundreds of relief workers in Haiti, are similarly incapacitated and unsure of how to get resources and equipment, already in dire short supply, into their staffs' hands.

There are some glimmers of hope. One is the Obama administration's quick recognition of the scope of the disaster, and the president's own pledge to do whatever it takes to meet Haiti's critical needs. Sending the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier based in Norfolk that can serve as an air transport and logistics hub just offshore, was an important first step. Coast Guard cutters, which can carry helicopters, are being deployed to Haiti. The Obama administration's move to suspend the deportation of undocumented Haitian immigrants was also helpful.

Another hopeful sign is what is shaping up as a massive public response from ordinary Americans. Relief groups that appealed for help have reported an enormous response, and not just in cash donations. Search-and-rescue teams, including from Fairfax County, were among the emergency workers heading into the country Wednesday; some 300 nurses volunteered their services to go to Haiti. Donations large and small are desperately needed. For those who want to help, a good place to start is the American Red Cross.

Haiti has suffered more mishaps, man-made and natural, than any country deserves -- and now this. Let's hope the ingenuity, skill and speed of the international response are equal to the challenge.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company