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Averting chaos in Haiti

Friday, January 15, 2010; A24

PRESIDENT OBAMA, flanked by an array of top administration officials, struck the right chords of empathy and urgency Thursday in announcing the first thrust of a major U.S. effort to address the unspeakable devastation in Haiti. But the president's moves to mobilize American civilian and military resources contained some notable and inexplicable omissions. Fortunately, he also promised that "much, much more help is on the way."

That is not to discount the assistance the president is sending immediately, nor his pledge of $100 million as a first slice of American relief. U.S. troops are on the ground and running the airport in Port-au-Prince, a critical deployment that is enabling a round-the-clock airlift of emergency relief supplies. Marines, more troops, an aircraft carrier and a U.S. Navy hospital ship are arriving. American food, water, equipment and medicine are coming in substantial quantities.

Still, for the time being, much of the aid is bottled up at the airport, and the logistical impediments to distributing it are staggering. In the capital, where untended bodies are rotting by the thousands, there is little sign of the massive U.S. and international response; the situation may be equally dire in outlying cities and towns whose communications with the outside world have been mostly severed. This would be dangerous even in a country without a crushing burden of poverty and hunger; in Haiti, where a great part of the population lives on less than $2 a day, it's treacherous. The risk of violence stemming from shortages of food, water, medicine and shelter will grow with each day that relief supplies fail to reach Haitians in their hour of need. U.S. and international officials must work fast -- not only to save lives but also to avert chaos.

In addition to emergency life-saving equipment and relief materials, Haitian families, many of whose livelihoods will have been destroyed by the quake, will need money. More than 1 million Haitians, about a third of all adults, currently receive cash from relatives living abroad, most of them in the United States; those funds account for between a fifth and a third of Haiti's gross domestic product. Yet the Obama administration has balked at helping tens of thousands of Haitians currently here illegally by granting them temporary legal status, which would enable them to get work permits. This despite U.S. law that specifically allows the government to extend "temporary protected status" to undocumented immigrants if natural disasters or wars in their home countries make it impractical to deport them. Haitians should have received this benefit after four devastating storms struck the island in the space of four weeks in the fall of 2008. Other undocumented immigrant groups -- from Nicaragua, Honduras, Sudan and elsewhere -- have received temporary legal status; Mr. Obama should immediately extend it to Haitians so they can help their quake-stricken relatives at home.

There's more the president can do, including pressing the International Monetary Fund and other international institutions and creditor nations to forgive $641 million in debt owed by Haiti. That would be a modest first step toward what should be another goal of U.S. policy in the medium to long term -- helping the Haitian government of President René Préval, whose own palace was destroyed in the temblor, start to regain its footing.

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