Haiti One Year Later: The American Red Cross on current situation

The devastating earthquake that struck Haiti nearly one year ago has left 1 million people still homeless and living in tent camps such as this one in Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital, seen three weeks after the quake.
The devastating earthquake that struck Haiti nearly one year ago has left 1 million people still homeless and living in tent camps such as this one in Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital, seen three weeks after the quake. (Carol Guzy)

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David Meltzer
Sr. VP, International Services, American Red Cross
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 2:30 PM

David Meltzer, senior vice president for international services at the American Red Cross, was online Tuesday, Jan. 11, to discuss how the country is faring one year after the devastating earthquake, addressing humanitarian efforts as well as an unstable government infrastructure, the current cholera outbreak, homelessness and the water supply.

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Los Angeles, California: Mr. Meltzer, I am a Neonatologist based in Los Angeles, CA. I spent a week in December volunteering at the Project Medishare Hospital in Port au Prince, caring for patients and training the Haitian nurses and doctors in Neonatal ICU care. While there, I learned that the American Red Cross provided financial support to keep this hospital open. That week was the greatest experience of my life, during which so many medical miracles were performed. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve in Haiti because of this pledge. Have you seen this project in Haiti? Will the American Red Cross continue to support this project? Is it a long-term or short-term commitment? -Leslie

David Meltzer: Leslie -- Yes. I've visited the Bernard Mevs hopsital that is run with support of Project Medishare and the American Red Cross. As you know, it is the only critical care facility in Haiti. We are glad that we can support the them. Of critical import will be to see how the Government of Haiti and others develop a sustainable health care sector. With our donors' support, we are able to keep the doors open of the hospital for a number of months but our funds will eventually run out too. We are also supporting Haiti's largest public hospital (HUEH) with Paul Farmer's Partner's in Health and also funding prosthetics and rehab centers.

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Anonymous: I hear many NGOs are having a hard time getting things done in Haiti. What are some of the problems holding things up?

David Meltzer: Thanks for the question. Haiti is the largesst urban disaster since WWII. In the immediate aftermath, the port was closed, roadways were damaged, and the airport was operating beyond capacity. It was equivalent to all of Manhattan's 1.5 million residents suddenly losing their homes with all of the ports and all of the airports closed except one runway at JFK. Now we are dealing with a city with many, many narrow roads covered by rubble. We just passed the 15th anniversary of the Kobe earthquake in Japan and they still have not fully recovered. Recovery after a cataclysmic disaster takes many, many years. The difficulty is the scale and the urban environment coupled with a challenged country before the quake. With respect to housing -- a long term priority of the American Red Cross -- the difficulty centers around rubble removal and the availability of suitable land when there were very few land records.

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Dauphin Island, AL: David, thanks for your hard work and I am sure your many years in the field helping others. My question: Who is the coordinating agency overseeing operations in Haiti, some international group, or the government of Haiti?

David Meltzer: Thanks for the good questions. During the relief phase, the coordinating agency is a UN organization called OCHA. Recovery operations are being coordinated by the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission which is co-chaired by Haitian Prime Minister Bellerive and President Bill Clinton.

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Washington, DC: There has been a lot of talk about the great amount of money raised, and the smaller amount of money spent on Haiti relief. Can you shed some light on why the Red Cross did not use all the funds this year, what their long term plan is in Haiti and with these generous donations?

David Meltzer: Here are some basic facts which you can get off of our website (www.redcross.org/haiti) and the annual report we just released. The American Red Cross has raised $479 million. We have spent and signed agreements to spend about $245 million -- more than 1/2 of the amount raised. Spending money quickly and wisely is our obligation to the people of Haiti and our donors. Over the next 3-5 years, we will be spending over $100 million to build permanent homes. The balance of the funds are going to fighting cholera, providing water and sanitation to people leaving in the tarps and tents, and building semi-permanent homes for 150,000 people.

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Silver Spring, MD: As a Red Cross volunteer, I've come across people who think that the Red Cross has very little to show for it's millions of donor dollars that have gone to Haiti. Can you break down administrative costs, with costs of providing food, shelter and medicine? Thank you.

David Meltzer: Thank you for your question and your service to the Red Cross. Thanks to people like you the Red Cross is able to help people in the US and abroad. Our administrative and overhead costs are actually quite low. 9% for overhead. Our program management expenses have totaled about 3% so far. I think the Better Business Bureau sets a much higher number as acceptable. There is a lot to be seen from our donors' generous contributions. We are providing clean, safe, water to hundreds of thousands of people every day. We and our partners have treated over 200,000 people at numerous medical facilities. We have helped vaccinate close to 1 million children and adults against numerous contagious diseases. We are today buidling 20-30 semi-permanent homes every day. We have provided about1/3rd of all emergency shelter such as tarps.

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Potomac, MD: Hello David Meltzer:

Can you please explain what it will take to return Haiti to its former self and in what timeframe you think this is achievable?

David Meltzer: Haiti was a very poor country before the earthquake. 70% of the people earned less than $2 a day. One third of the people did not have access to clean municipal water. Theree were roughly 2.5 doctors per 10,000 Haitians. Fewer than 20% of the people had access to adequate sanitation. There were very few land records. Many people rented homes without a written lease. With the earthquake, the political and financial capital of the country was largely destroyed. Well over half of all government buildings were destroyed. As the earthquake occured in the afternoon of a work day, many thousands of government employees lost their lives. So, to answer your question, it is going to take years of perserverence, resources, and sweat to bring Haiti back to it former self and hopefully better.

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Charlie, Santa Monica CA: I heard the Red Cross has been asked by the Haitian Government to not distribute food in ...Can you comment on that?

David Meltzer: Several months after the earthquake, the Haitian Government and various food relief agencies agreed that distribution of free food to the general population should be suspended. Such a decision is not unusual following disasters as the markets eventually do back and the farming community is able to produce food in sufficient quantities. Today, food assistance is being provided to certain groups like school children, pregnant women, and lactating mothers.

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Washington, D.C.: Of all the things the Red Cross has done for Haiti, what do you feel is the "coolest" or most inspiring?

David Meltzer: Good question. Thanks for asking it. There are several things. We are seeing cell phone technology changing the face of disaster response. First, we received $32 million in text donations -- at $10 a pop. The scale of this response was wildly unprecedented. We successfully piloted a program where certain at risk communities received text messages and a PIN informing them that they could receive a small cash payment if they moved out of a camp at risk of flooding. While not "cool" in one sense of the word, we saw many people trapped in rubble use their cell phones to text where they were trapped so rescuers could find them.

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Tampa, FL: I have heard that the aid money pledged to Haiti by U.S. private citizens and government has not yet been received. If this is true, can you explain why? Thank you.

David Meltzer: I don't have the figures on how much of the funds pledged by governments at the March UN Donor Conference have been paid so far. The UN maintains a good database which tracks the commitments against the pledges. For the American Red Cross, we have received $479 million and have spent and signed agreements to spend $245 million so far.

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Tysons Cornerm VA: My Rotary club sent two "Shelter Boxes" to Haiti last year. Are you familiar with these and do you have an opinion as to their value?

David Meltzer: Yes -- I am familiar with shelter boxes. We and our partners distributed many of them. They are helpful as part of a coordinated shelter response which includes tarps, tents and shelter kits.

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Washington, D.C.: You hear a lot from people like Sean Penn that there's plenty of money, they're just not spending it, what's the holdup in terms of building back Port au Prince better than before? Personally, I think they should tear down the presidential palace, as it was badly damaged and the site of torture in the basement under Papa Doc Duvalier.

David Meltzer: We actually have partnered with Mr. Penn's organization as they are an effective group. If the object is to help relieve suffering and rebuild Haiti, there are more needs than any one organization or government can handle. Even with all of our money ($479 million), we have spent or signed contracts to spend over half of it in just a year. You are looking at billions and billions of dollars needed to build Port au Prince back better and this will take years. We have experience in Kobe, Japan and the tsunami affected countries that makes clear that recovery takes years. Recovery is very complicated -- particularly in an urban environment in a country that was very poor to begin with.

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Washington, DC: Besides cash, is there any other contribution that a common citizen might gather that would improve conditions--working with a church, for instance. Is it just about cash??

David Meltzer: I know it may sound not be what well-meaning people want to hear, but the reality is often that cash is really the best way you can help following a disaster. While offers of materials such as canned goods and medicine, as well as offers to volunteer and go to Haiti to help out, are great, the painful reality is that it takes time and money to ship goods and people. Once there, the goods must be sorted and distributed. Volunteers coming to a foreign country usually do not speak the language, understand the culture, and, in many cases, are not willing to live in the harsh conditions that exist following a disaster. It also takes money to transport, house and feed volunteers. Also, a ready group of volunteers is always available locally. In this case, Haitians volunteering for the Haitian Red Cross. I greatly admire such genuine offers and I know it comes from a good place in people's hearts. However, the reality is that cash can be quickly transformed into relief items that are most needed -- sometimes purchased in the disaster-affected country which has the double benefit of helping the local economy rebound from the disaster.

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Fairfax, Virginia: Exactly who is in charge of coordinating and delivery of ALL the recovery activities? Also, is there a specific, comprehensive plan to guide the recovery efforts?

David Meltzer: All recovery projects are required to go before the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission for approval. This helps match needs with resources and it also helps avoid wasting valuable resources. The Government of Haiti has published its recovery plan. As always, execution is key.

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WDC: Hello David. First a comment--thanks for all you do for Americans, Haitians and anyone needing help around the world. It's often a thankless job, and I just want to make sure you and your employees know that you are appreciated. Second, a question: Can you please explain why it takes so long to spend the funds raised? I understand why, but so many people don't seem to grasp the realities there, and it would help if you could elucidate them. Thanks.

David Meltzer: WDC -- thanks for the support and kind words. While we are all frustrated at the pace of recovery efforts, I hope you and everyone else realizes that we truly are working night and day to help the most vulnerable in Haiti. Recovery takes years of hard work. What took decades or centuries to build (and just seconds to destroy) does not get built in months. In the case of Haiti, all organizations are facing extreme challenges of poverty, urban environment, and weakend infrastructure even before the earthquake. At the American Red Cross, we have largely focused our first year's efforts on providing basic necessities to ensure that we don't have a second catastrophe. Dump and run aid does a disservice to the people of Haiti and our donors. Here is one example of why it takes a long time to recover: building homes. First, you have to get the heavy equipment to clear rubble. This requires approval of the land owner and it is often unclear who owns the land. Once you clear the rubble, you have to determine where the rubble can be safely disposed. Assuming you get that far, you then have to figure out who should have the benefit of living in the brand new home when so many people are needing a home. All this can be done and has been done in other countries. However, it takes time.

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washingtonpost.com: For more information on how the Red Cross is helping Haiti or how you can donate, please visit their site.

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