Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Haiti" and What We Can Learn From Katrina

(photo- Katyn Monument, Harbor East, Baltimore. May 2008.)

"Choosing the humanistic approach to other people’s misery brings certain obligations. The first is humanitarian: the generous response of ordinary Americans, along with the quick dispatch of troops and supplies by the U.S. government, met this responsibility, though it couldn’t answer the overwhelming needs of people in Haiti. But beyond rescue and relief lies the harder task of figuring out what the United States and other countries can and ought to do for Haiti over the long term, and what Haiti is capable of doing for itself." - "Suffering," George Packer, The New Yorker, Jan 25 2010

This March, I am headed to New Orleans for a week to volunteer for a Habitat project that's building a community of homes along a devastated stretch of land by the river. The decision process in my choosing to embark on this mission came in equal parts sudden and prolonged.

The prolonged aspect was this: for the past several years, I've been at odds with myself and my place in this world. I've waxed poetical on this blog (often injecting narcissistic ruins and self-deprecating moments of doubt) about the process and, from a standpoint although not quite yet fully outside of it but clearly on the other side of something, I realized that all of this soul-searching and circular thinking was yielding....nothing. Was it wasted? Certainly not. Was it necessary? Of course. Was it productive? Depends on how you measure. But was it moving forward? Not anymore.

The realization that inaction is a form of action was no longer working culminated in a moment where I realized how very small I am, how very large the world is, and how very interconnected we are. All of this rationalizing and theorizing brought me to the idea that I should take all of this excess "I don't know what to do with myself" energy and put it to good use. And so, I decided to volunteer, to do something big, to plan and execute some sort of project that would, in some way, directly help others.

Whenever you commit yourself to something, it seems that doors open. Within the week of my decision to attempt to find some outlet for this newly-found goal, an email found its way to me via various outlets seeking volunteers for a Habitat trip to New Orleans. I met with the organizer of the trip a week later and signed the paperwork.

Once I started doing research, I became more and more fully committed to the idea of the RHINO project (Rebuilding Hope In New Orleans.) The thing with great world crises (think Katrina, the tsunami, etc.) is that there is a great momentum at the onset to help. Media outlets are on the scene, showing us graphic images of people in desperate need. We reach out to our fellow human beings, we give everything we are able, and we rush in to help in the moment of crisis.

But this is problematic because, like anything with a great initial momentum, at some point it falters if not fueled. And the state of New Orleans and the destruction of Katrina are still dire and present. However one might argue about the initial lack of help and response, it was certainly on the nation's radar through much of 2005-2006 and initiatives to help gradually snowballed as the tense political scene danced around trying to downplay the damage while putting as much emphasis as possible on the supposed outpouring of help.

But now, so many years later, is when the desperation reaches its apex. Funds are running dry and being redirected towards newer, more vogue causes. When people think to donate money, time, or other resources, Katrina is slowly but surely falling off the map. And the consequences? The levies, which were so far below code before the hurricanes, would not be able to withstand another hit. Not because people "shouldn't be living in lowland areas near rivers," as it's been argued, but because the need for stringent rebuilding procedures and uncorrupted contractors, and local politicians with an eye on the future of New Orleans as a thriving and healthy city as opposed to one hand in the pocket all require long-term help and care. Once the immediate sick and injured have been tended to, once all of the victims have a bed to sleep in and meals to count on, that's where the real work starts.

It will be the same with Haiti. One of the world's poorest countries cannot come back from devastation like this without long-term planning and continuing efforts. Five, six, seven years from now when the dead have been buried, what will we be doing to assist? How can we help pull this country up from the rubble, invest in it, and rebuild it so that it actually stands a chance of surviving anything else the universe might throw at it?

Buzz words and catch phrases and celebrity involvement put crises in vogue. Jennifer Lopez answers phones at a donations center while Wyclef Jean tearfully begs for donations for his home country. They get involved, but where will they be when the bigger questions need to be answered? When corrupt politicians and a history of desperate poverty prove to be the true ruin of Haiti?

And so, I pack up my jeans with the holes in the knees and hope that they'll have a hammer on-site (because you can't fly with jack shit these days, even in checked luggage) and I'm heading down to NOLA to put my money where my mouth is, five years after the initial fact. And five years from now, maybe I'll find some initiative in Haiti to join.

Hope and help aren't just about initial reactions. It's about long-term dedication. It's about a commitment to being there, long after the dust has literally and figuratively settled.

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