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Haiti's Unnatural Disaster

Posted on: Thursday, September 11, 2008

Keywords: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Haiti, Latin America and Caribbean, Emergency Relief

We've been doing all we can this week to get emergency support to our partner organizations in Haiti.

Haiti—the poorest in the hemisphere—has been slammed by four major storms in the past month. More than 1,000 people have been killed and about one million left homeless.

One of the most harrowing parts of the disaster is that rescue workers cannot reach people in need. Haiti's third-largest city, Gonaives, is under water right now. People there, more than 200,000 of them, have been stranded for days without food or drinking water. Many are huddled on rooftops with what few possessions they have left. They are waiting for rescue, but relief workers are nowhere in sight.

Fortunately, MADRE's sister organizations are already on the ground in Haiti. Our partners at Zanmi Lasante and KOFAVIV are part of the communities devastated by these storms. They don't have helicopters or professional rescue gear. But these are women and men with deep ties in their communities and stellar organizing skills. Right now, with their communities in crisis, it's the social networks that our sister organizations have built over years of organizing that are enabling people to reach out to each other and save lives.

Our partners know who the most vulnerable people are—who just had a baby, or whose grandfather can't walk. And they know how to reach them, even in chaotic flood conditions. We are working through MADRE's Emergency and Disaster Relief Fund to get drinking water, food, medicine, and other emergency aid into the hands of our sister organizations so they can bring relief to survivors.

We need to get people off of rooftops and into shelters. Longer-term, we need to recognize that this is not a natural disaster. The two biggest reasons for the shocking death toll in Haiti are deforestation (which leads to flash flooding) and lack of civic disaster planning and response. Both are consequences of the fact that Haiti has no functional government. US-led policies, like the 2004 overthrow of Haiti's only democratically-elected president, have kept the country impoverished and virtually ungoverned.

Haiti's new prime minister Michèle Pierre-Louis has visited flooded areas and some government officials have been working day and night since the disaster struck. But these amount to individual efforts. There is no infrastructure in place for the country to respond.

Just compare Haiti to Cuba, which actually bore the brunt of Hurricane Ike. In Cuba, four people were killed by the storm. Hurricane fatalities are almost unheard of there, because Cuba's disaster-response system can get millions of people to safety during a storm and then meet their needs for food, medical care, and housing.

What Cuba badly needs is access to medicine. That's because the US embargo makes it almost impossible for them to import medicines and medical supplies that are badly needed in times like this. MADRE has always stood against the embargo. Like most of the world, we consider it to be a cruel policy that violates human rights standards.

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