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Americans open hearts to help Haitians after earthquake

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010; A06

Just a week ago, Haiti was covered by a single American foreign correspondent from a major news organization. Americans' knowledge of Haiti was limited to a few images and stereotypes. Like boat people. Voodoo. And, of course, disaster.

Now the great gulf between America and Haiti, a chasm greater than the 700 miles that separate the western end of the island of Hispaniola from South Florida, has been bridged by a vast outpouring of compassion.

The power of television has brought home the intensity of Haitians' suffering. It would be an exaggeration to say that we're all Haitians now, but for the moment, Haiti's not alone.

The question is, what will happen in two months? Two years?

"I worry that when the cameras go away, you know, people will start looking away. Right now it's a dramatic story. It's Haiti on its knees," said Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-born author who lives in Miami and has been anxiously waiting for news from her relatives.

Americans care about Haiti -- but how much they care and whether they will care in the months and years to come are questions that can only be answered with the passage of time. Amy Wilentz, a journalist who has written extensively about Haiti, takes a jaundiced view: "We only like them when they're dying. That's when we care."

Perhaps this catastrophe is so big that it will permanently transform the relationship between Americans and Haitians. Not all disasters are created equal. On television we see Haitians clambering over bodies and coping with the intensifying stench of corpses. We see bodies buried in makeshift landfills without so much as an identifying snapshot. It's like Hurricane Katrina, only much worse.

So it was, Sunday morning, that compassion arrived at the Haitian embassy in Washington -- and pretty much inundated it. Word had spread on the Internet that the Greater Washington Haiti Relief Committee needed donations of clothes, medicine, batteries, diapers, baby formula and so on. The start time was set for 11 a.m., but people began showing up at the embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW more than two hours in advance. By noon, the bags of donations had stuffed the old mansion to the rafters.

A chain of people passed the bags up the staircase, where they piled up in an elegant dining room. Hundreds of volunteers diligently sorted shirts from blouses, folding everything, stacking, and trying to stay ahead of the incoming bags.

"We're out of boxes!" someone shouted.

"It's not a complicated story," said Deepak Marwah, 29, a consultant who answered the call for help. "This is about humanity."

"When are they going to lose our attention span? Probably the next news cycle. Who remembers the earthquake last year in China?" asked Cathy Kohn, a Bethesda housewife whose middle-school daughter was among the volunteers at the embassy Sunday.

When Finiana Joseph of the Caribbean Professional Network called U-Store-It on Upshur Street NW looking to buy storage space for Haitian relief supplies, she was told no -- it's free. When Berthie Labissiere, head of medical missions for the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians, tried to buy boxes at Home Depot, she was told the same -- no charge.

"I don't think they can forget this one," Labissiere said Sunday morning at the embassy. "Have you seen the images on TV?"

There are naysayers, of course. There are haters, too. The comment stream on the Internet -- check any online story, just about -- is hardly a kumbaya chorus. The usual racist rants are supplemented by cynicism that Haiti can ever pull itself out of its misery. Although few Americans seem to share the view of evangelist Pat Robertson that Haitians brought the earthquake upon themselves, there are those who think aid to Haiti is likely to be wasted, siphoned off by corrupt politicians.

TV talker Bill O'Reilly, for example, said he gives to a private charity that helps Haiti but has a dim view of government aid: "[T]he USA will once again pour millions into that country, much of which will be stolen. Once again, we will do more than anyone else on the planet, and one year from today, Haiti will be just as bad as it is right now."

What's certain is that, for the moment, Americans have opened their hearts and their wallets. Two former presidents are leading relief fundraising (http://www.clintonbushhaitifund.org). The U.S. government pledged $100 million. The United States sent an aircraft carrier and a company of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

Even our celebrities have mobilized. US magazine reports that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie donated $1 million to Haitian relief (via Doctors Without Borders), as did Sandra Bullock and supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Madonna gave $250,000. George Clooney will host a Haitian relief show this week on MTV. Chelsea Clinton is raising money through a 90-minute spinning class in Manhattan. And the Tiger Woods Foundation wants to donate $3 million for a mobile hospital staffed with EMTs.

The Haitian disaster was of sufficient magnitude to bring together three U.S. presidents who, at various moments in the recent past, have each been the furious political antagonists of the other two. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush stood shoulder to shoulder Saturday morning in the Rose Garden.

"[W]hen the news media starts seeing its attention drift to other things but there's still enormous needs on the ground, these two gentlemen of extraordinary stature, I think, are going to be able to help ensure that these efforts are sustained," Obama said.

Vice President Biden was pithier when he met with Haitian leaders in Miami on Saturday: "This will still be on our radar screen long after it's off the crawler at CNN."

Sustaining that spirit will require that Americans think their contributions are being used wisely, said Albert DeCady, chairman of the Greater Washington Haiti Relief Fund.

"The American people are generous people," DeCady said. "They want to help Haiti rebuild. But they want to see their money used to the purpose it was intended."

Those who have followed Haitian news say it has been a land of broken promises.

"After every Haitian crisis, we've said, 'This time it will be different.' I am hoping and praying that this time it really will be different," said Eduardo Gamarra, founder of the Haitian Summer Institute at Florida International University.

Haiti has been a steady recipient of U.S. aid and in recent years has received nearly $300 million a year. But it has slipped as a priority relative to countries of greater strategic importance in the post-9/11 world. Haiti was ninth on the list of countries receiving U.S. foreign aid in 1998 but had fallen out of the top 15 by 2008 as a greater share of aid went to countries in the Middle East.

Yves Colon, a Haiti-born journalist who teaches at the University of Miami, said the U.S. government's attitude toward Haiti has been to parachute into the country whenever there's a crisis and then leave as soon as possible. The U.S. goal, he says, has been to "stop the bleeding, in a sense."

But the response to the earthquake from ordinary Americans has given him hope.

"My spirit is totally uplifted by this," Colon says. "Not too long ago 'Haitian' was a maligned word. Either you had AIDS or you were poor. It seems like people's eyes have been opened. The earth shook to open people's eyes."

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