Thursday, January 14, 2010

Crisis in Haiti

Every disaster, natural or man-made, demands a response tailored to its particular challenges, but the lessons learned through handling past disasters can help avoid predictable mistakes.

The most substantial difference between the response to the attack on the World Trade Center and Katrina disaster was the management of the crisis. It remains an open question how well disaster relief for Haiti will be managed and coordinated.

In New York City, after the attacks of September 11th, there was a unified command structure, with the Mayor or Governor sitting in charge at executive management meetings three to four times a day. Those meetings consisted of all of the agencies responsible for running the city or state. Anything and everything that had to be done was coordinated in those meetings and delegated to the appropriate agency for handling. There was constant follow-up at these meetings to insure that the tasks assigned to agencies were carried out.By having so many regularly scheduled, highly focused meetings, crisis management strategies could be quickly modified as conditions changed or new information became available. If additional follow-up was required, it was only a matter of hours before the next meeting would be held, and any problems not taken care of in the field could be resolved quickly.

Coordination of volunteer assistance and resources is essential, and, just as there must be a unified executive command, the operational areas must also have a defined chain of command and mechanisms to promptly communicate necessary information from the executive command center to the operational or event commanders in the field.

In contrast to New York’s handling of September 11th, this kind of executive leadership never happened during the Katrina crisis. Although all parties were well intentioned, the Governor was going one way and the Mayor of New Orleans another, with the Mayor failing to communicate with federal assistance personnel. This chaotic absence of coordinated management only added to the crisis at hand.

September 11th and Katrina posed immense management challenges. The situation in Haiti, however, is far worse. The Haiti crisis is of epic proportion. All the issues we had to deal with in the United States during 9/11 or Katrina will be multiplied a hundred-fold, perhaps a thousand-fold. The importance of a unified command that efficiently manages the flow of information and resources to operational commanders in the field cannot be overstated. These are absolutely essential components for the best outcome for Haiti catastrophe relief efforts.

Haiti needs all the resources they can get through charitable contributions and foreign governments. Collecting, transporting, storing, and distributing resources poses an immense, complex challenge.
First and foremost, getting water and food and medical supplies to the people is a top priority. Relief leaders must do whatever it’s going to take to prevent the spread of disease. To minimize risk, supplies should be delivered within the first 72 hours – and the quake struck last Tuesday. Every passing hour in an area with contaminated water, insect-borne disease, and insufficient sanitation facilities puts survivors and rescuers at greater and greater risk.

For those interested in donating money to a Haiti-related charity, there are two things to keep in mind. You want to make sure that as much of your charitable dollar as possible reaches those who are suffering, rather than to support the administrative costs of whatever charity you’re considering giving to. A good rule of thumb is to choose a charity whose administrative fee does not exceed 10%. You can find this information for free online, through the searchable database at Charity Navigator. You don’t want to donate money to a life-and-death cause like Haiti relief, only to find that 50% of your money is going toward the charity’s administrative costs and employee salaries.

The other thing you should be aware of is that you must make sure the charity you’ve chosen will direct the full amount of your donation to Haiti relief. Even with a legitimate charity, you want to direct and to verify that all that the money you donate is going to Haiti relief, not to a bigger pot with only a portion of it going to Haiti.

We saw an historic problem of this kind in New York after September 11th. The Red Cross set up a fund to provide relief to the victims of the terrorist attacks.By November, 2001, the fund totaled $564 million in donations. Red Cross officials then decided to use 2/3 of these donations for other purposes, such as upgrading Red Cross computer and phone systems, which resulted in public outrage and Congressional hearings. So it’s important, even with the most trustworthy charity, to write your check so that the charity is obliged to use your money in the way you intend.

The President has already committed $100M in support to the government of Haiti and other governments should be doing the same. However, under no circumstance do I think that we should do so without conditions being put on that money, as to where it goes and how it should be spent, with methods of accountability installed to insure that it is used for the purpose it was granted.

I believe Haiti is going to be a test case for international compassion and coordination, and already it is pretty evident that the United States once again will lead the way. Where are Russia, China, and some of the other countries on the so-called world stage? China has pledged $1 million – a far cry from the $100 million the U.S. has pledged.

If other powerful nations can’t produce at times like this, when an entire country is on the verge of extinction, then we and the rest of the world need to seriously re-evaluate what we do for them, and with them.

God bless the people of Haiti, and Godspeed to those who go there to help the Haitian people.

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