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Let relief from storms move us to help others

I get the feeling we've started watching hurricane coverage the way we watch dull ball games: keeping an eye on those red discs as they spin through the Caribbean and tuning out once the outcome has been decided — when we know we've been spared.

Not only had I (and you, I bet) failed to donate a penny to recent hurricane victims; I didn't even consider it until I saw a letter from Dr. Paul Farmer, the newly named Brooksvillian of the Year.

"The streets were full of debris, upside-down vehicles and dazed residents looking to get out before the next rains,'' Farmer wrote, after describing how stormwater had cascaded down deforested hillsides and into the west Haiti town of Gonaives.

Floating corpses of cows and goats promised future deaths from diseases such as typhoid. Farmer's medical care organization, Partners in Health, had been pressed into service as a flood relief agency, he wrote, and was short of "food, water, clothes, and, especially, cash (which can be converted into all of the above).''

That was a week ago, and in a follow-up e-mail, Farmer (along with most media outlets) reported the crisis in Gonaives had eased somewhat as larger aid organizations made it into town.

But there was bleak news, too. Hurricane Ike, the fourth named storm to hit Haiti this year, had killed at least 58 more residents, many of them children, with Farmer adding that this number and the official estimate of total storm deaths, 331, appeared to be far short of reality:

"I'd be surprised if there weren't already way more than 1,000 dead and a million homeless.''

Remember the gloom cast over Hernando last week by the death of two girls in car accidents? Remember how our neighbors mobilized to help rebuild homes in Central Florida after Hurricane Charlie in 2004? Remember how relief agencies collected massive donations — $3.27-billion, according to the Washington Post — to help victims of Hurricane Katrina?

All of this was as it should be. But why don't we feel more — and do more — for hurricane victims in places like Haiti?

Because, I think, we've seen so many serious storms that they seem routine. Compared to a few years ago, we don't have as much money to spare (though more, certainly, than all but a tiny minority of Haitians, many of whom live on less than $1 per day).

And maybe Haiti seems farther away than it really is, about 90 minutes by air from Miami.

Its people speak an obscure language and live unrecognizably primitive lives. And, though I hate to think this plays a big part, most of them are black and most of us are white.

I don't want to hype Farmer's organization at the expense of others. The Red Cross and Oxfam are delivering aid to hurricane victims. Give to them if you prefer. Or to the people in Texas, if, by the time this column appears, Ike has made landfall there and they need our help.

But I also think we have a chance to make our recent recognition of Farmer — who grew up in Brooksville and has devoted his life to improving health care in poor countries — more than a symbolic gesture.

With him as our example, we should get over our provincialism and offer to help with only one thing in mind:

Who needs it most?

Let relief from storms move us to help others 09/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 3:38pm]
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