Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Prompt Response to the Haiti Earthquake

The United States responded more decisively to the Tuesday earthquake in Haiti than it had to the hurricane and flooding in New Orleans five years ago. The U.S. military was called into action sooner, for example, in spite of the fact that the earthquake hit with no advance warning and its severity was not well understood until the following morning. Compare that to the two days of official hurricane watches and warnings prior to Hurricane Katrina, and you can see that the contrast in response is a matter of will rather than ability. It is a sign of a country more interested in responding to security disruptions than it was under the previous administration.

There are, to be sure, complaints about the slow progress of relief efforts, but the delays are not the result of indecision. They are caused instead by the tremendous difficulties in traversing roads and ports when tons of rubble are blocking the way. Security issues, in a country where the police force was hit as hard as anything else, have compounded the difficulties.

Some have said that the widespread destruction in Haiti was the result of poorly built buildings. That too is the wrong way of looking at it. It is true that many of the buildings in Haiti were not designed with earthquake resistance in mind. The same can be said for any area that has not had a major earthquake in two centuries. It is easy to see in the photos from Haiti that buildings that were properly constructed also came down. The right way to look at the situation, then, is that the damage was caused by the nature of the earthquake, rather than by the nature of the buildings.