By Wendell P. Simpson
Last Tuesday, a 7.5 earthquake hit the island nation of Haiti, devastating a country already hard hit by incessant poverty and high debt.
Six million people have been severely impacted by the quake which reduced much of the infrastructure to rubble and according to those on the ground, the situation worsens by the minute. Rescue workers have said due to the severity of the destruction, it is hard for them to make assessments. They’ve also cited severe shortages in essential supplies. U.S., reconnaissance planes have surveyed the destruction. The most severe damage seems to have occurred around the capital of Port Au Prince.
As of this writing, there are no firm numbers of the casualties, but estimates are running in the hundreds of thousands. Among the injured are some of the 45,000 Americans who live and work in Haiti.
News videos and eyewitness accounts present a tableau of Hell. Buildings have been reduced to dust, fires burn out of control, thousands are missing and the survivors are without clean water, electricity, sanitation and other essential service. The screams of the injured pierce the air and there are massive numbers of people still buried beneath the rubble.
Communications to Haiti have been severely disrupted as foreign governments have been unable to communicate with their embassies.
Because of logistical concerns, there are questions about the world’s ability to get its help to the people in desperate need. Roads are closed, communications are almost non-existant and many of those in need are in remote areas. Countries such as China, Canada and Mexico and even Haiti’s tiny island neighbor, the Dominican Republic, have pledged their support. The private sector has also pledged to lend aide, but the hope is that these efforts can come in time.
“The essential help has to come within the first 24 to 48 hours,” said Helen Gayle of CARE USA on CNN last Wednesday morning.
President Obama, in order to ameliorate the effects of the disaster, has promised a swift, multi-agency U.S. response to the Haitian crisis. “We are reminded of the common humanity we all share,” said the President. “We have to be there for them in their hour of need.”
In the tri-state area, significant efforts are already underway to help alleviate the Haitian crisis. efforts are underway to Magda D’Orleans, director of the Haitian Ministry Office in Trenton, says her organization is asking for donations of any kind that can be sent to assist the people of Haiti.
“The situation (in Haiti) there is critical,” said D’Orleans, “and we’re willing to work with anyone who’s willing to help. We’re asking people to send anything they can to help in the relief effort–clothes, food, tents, toothbrushes, bandages, health items–anything you can think of.”
D’Orleans is aligning with a number of organizations in order to rally support. A local shipping company, the Delaware-Haiti Corporation, has already agreed to partner with Haitian Ministry to ship items to Haiti at it’s own expense.
“People have recognized the depth of the situation, and it is a blessing that they are coming forward to help,” said D’Orleans. “However, as the news continues to emphasize how poor Haiti is, that is not the issue now. The issue is, people in Haiti need help, and just as it would be with anyone else, black, white, American or Haitian, when we suffer, we all suffer the same. I would like for people to please get past that image.”
Lansana Koroma, a member of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission on African and Caribbean Community Affairs, echoes that concern.
“I’ve talked to several people who are concerned that the West will do what it can to help,“ said Koroma. “I hope and pray that the press gets on board to get the world to pay attention to the crisis in Haiti. There is no doubt in my mind that if this catastrophe had occurred in another part of the world, the press would push a moral propaganda, but when it comes to the worldwide Black community, that agenda is lacking.”
Koroma said that the commission is in meetings with members of the African and Caribbean community leadership to plan a course of action. “We are discussing what we can do to influence the local, state and federal government, and private citizens, to intervene in the issue.”
Koroma is lobbying the Mayor’s commission to form a local delegation to Haiti to access the extent of the crisis first hand. “There is no way to understand the depth of the situation without being there on the ground. That’s where the issue is.“
Haitian Americans are very concerned about the extent that the Haitian people will be able to help themselves.
“There is no government in Haiti,” said Picard Losier, a Haitian American lawyer who works in Philadelphia. Losier said that the UN force that has been in the country since June 2004 constitutes the only official force in the country.
“There are many, many efforts to get assistance down there, the churches in particular, are doing all they can,” said Losier, “but the concern is with the lack of infrastructure. Working in Haiti is a logistical nightmare. The problems are enormous.”
Losier said that Haitian community leaders are meeting with Councilwoman Janine Blackwell to address their concerns, but the reality of the situation is hardly mitigated. The shock among Haitian Americans is palpable, Losier said.
“Our people are desperate. There is crying and grief among those of us who live here,“ said Losier. “We’ve heard nothing from the (Haitian) government. People are unable to reach family members. The only real sustained communication is via the internet because phones are out. And what we hear are the numbers of the dead, and how there are no safe structures. People are living in the streets now.
“Haiti has been hit by crisis in the past, but nothing of this magnitude. Right now, there are plans to go to Haiti–I know of two doctors who’ve gone to the Dominican Republic to cross over into Haiti to lend whatever help they can–but right now, we’re all at a loss for words.”
A number of Philadelphians talked to the SUN regarding their feelings on the severity and inequities of the Haitian situation. Those sentiments are strong and profound.
“I think there’s no way in good conscience that Americans, particularly myself, cannot come to the aid of the Haitian people,” said Sharif Shabaka, a local activist. “Haiti has been a nation in crisis for a long time. It has had an inept government with a succession of corrupt leaders. And now this. If there’s any pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, it’s that the U.S. will end up paying more attention to the Haitian people. President Obama has acted swiftly and deliberately. It’s a credit to this administration that they are not going to allow this to become another Katrina.”
Chris Murray, a Philadelphia writer and educator, pointed to the political history of Haiti as a salient point of issue. “I think Haiti is the by-product of failed U.S. policy. The earthquake exacerbates the tragedy.” Murray said. “There’s been a lingering resentment that Haiti became the first Black republic on earth. I feel for the people, and it’s a shame it takes a tragedy to highlight how impoverished the country is.”
“In the stark reality of the magnitude of the tragedy in Haiti, which is salt in the wound to the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, it is important that we not neglect the laudable and audacious history of the Haitian people, under the direction of freedom fighter, François-Dominique Toussaint L’ouverture in the early 19th century, long before any other enslaved people of color were able to succeed in their own reclamation, “ said Amy Simmons, a Philadelphia area writer, editor and media relations professional.
“In the chaos that follows all revolution, there was much lost, but the descendents of these people are still here, despite the obstacles, be they locally engendered, the result of neo-colonial dysfunction or foisted on them by natural forces. They are a nation of survivors, of innovators, of creative, intelligent, inspiring, resourceful and faithful people….do not focus on victimhood only- that lacks vision and respect. I think people of color in particular need to be mindful of this; there is nothing which robs a person of their motivation to restore dignity, than patronization and over simplification of complex realities.”