Like a lot of us, Arsene Jasmin was glued to the news about Hurricane Irene. He recognized the hype, the clever TV meteorologists promoting their “wall-to-wall” coverage and “eyes on the eye” of the storm. He listened to government officials warn of destruction the way prophets do in disaster movies. And he could not have been more impressed by it all.
Jasmin, who is a priest at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in the District, grew up in Haiti.
“When you have seen hundreds of thousands of people die for lack of a weather forecast or adequate prevention, as in my country, all I can say is more warning is better than none,” Jasmin told me.
I wanted to know what our emergency response looked like to him, compared with Haiti’s tragic history of ill-preparedness. Some of our TV storm coverage was so bad I had to turn it off.
On the Weather Channel, for instance, a meteorologist stood in a drizzle calling passersby “stupid” for not evacuating the area. A hurricane tracking map showed the storm swirling over a beach while on a split screen some kids were playing under partly cloudy skies.
The grandiosity in the face of nature’s unpredictability and the incongruity of being told one thing about the weather and seeing something else on the TV screen made me take the warnings with a grain of salt.
Sure enough Jasmin, who was in Haiti for a retreat in January 2010 when a devastating quake struck, had a different view.
“In my country, the government tells us that hurricane season is here and we need to get ready,” he said. “But what day to get ready for, many people don’t always know. If you don’t have a radio or electricity, and many do not, you just have to look at the sky, at the moon and sun, to see if it’s going to be a beautiful day or a bad day.”
By the time the conversation ended, my grumbling had turned to gratitude. Not just because our country can afford the latest in forecasting gadgetry. It was more because of how Jasmin saw us — an American people rich in spirit. A nation that not only tries to prevent disaster, but goes all out to help those affected.
A call to the American Red Cross helped me to make his point. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti last year, the organization raised $480 million for the relief effort.
“About $32 million of that came from $10 contributions that people texted in on their cellphones,” Suzy DeFrancis, a Red Cross spokeswoman, told me. “The American people have great compassion for Haiti and they respond to human need anywhere in the world.”
The organization continues helping residents of Joplin, Mo., and other cities in the Midwest and South that were hit recently by a spate of deadly tornadoes. It’s still providing shelters for people displaced by the floods in Minot, N.D., in June, too. Against this backdrop of American love and charity, the Republican-led effort in Congress to cut funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency is most unseemly, if not outright obscene.
“Volunteers from all over the country are coming east to help with the cleanup from Hurricane Irene,” the Red Cross’s Anne Marie Borrego told me.
And they are still helping in Haiti.
In the Washington area last week, we experienced an earthquake that registered 5.8, but not a single life was lost because of it. Haiti gets hit with a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, which is much bigger than the one here, and enough people to fill three large football stadiums vanish.
To this day, Haiti’s emergency broadcast system relies too heavily on word of mouth.
“I get the sense that the American people really see life as precious, and the 38 people who died during Hurricane Irene will be mourned and remembered,” Jasmin said. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to talk this way about my country. I was there last year during the earthquake, and seeing 300,000 people die in this disaster, knowing that our government could have done more to prevent it, it’s painful to see how we don’t care so much about life.”
Those who suffered through Hurricane Katrina in 2005 might take issue with Jasmin’s rosy view of our preparedness. But there’s little doubt that memories of that deadly storm strengthened our resolve to save lives this time.
From Jasmin’s perspective, you might even conclude that those hysterical meteorologists were just showing how much they cared.