Haiti President Rene Preval has been making the rounds on a desperate mission to stave off an epic calamity in his country. The four storms in three weeks this summer that destroyed most of Haiti's agriculture and reduced low-lying cities to giant mud-cakes have created a chance for Haiti to rebuild itself and resolve some of the long-standing problems that have stunted its growth. What threatens Haiti most immediately, though, is how and whether it recovers from the devastation of those storms.
The crisis is that Haiti is teetering at the edge of an abyss. World Bank president Robert Zoellick warned on Tuesday that the country is at a "tipping point." What Zoellick and Preval realize is that if Haiti doesn't quickly get massive amounts of financial and technical help from its neighbors, the United Nations, the international community and the United States, it will fall into a bottomless pit of hunger, disease, crime, poverty and desperation that will make the preceding decade of poverty, violence and instability look benign in comparison.
The storms have almost eviscerated Haiti: Major roads and bridges — gone. Hospitals, schools, stores, homes and shops — caked in mud and inoperable. People are hungry and desperate for food. Mud puddles harbor filth, breed mosquitoes, carry diseases. Conditions are so bad, infrastructure so battered, that just getting food and medical aid to people requires planes, helicopters and boats.
Preval has taken his plea to the United Nations, the White House and the World Bank. Earlier this month, he visited South Florida and returned last week, stopping for a visit with the Miami Herald. Help is coming from all quarters, but not nearly fast enough and not nearly enough.
Preval's plan for short-term and long-term fixes is commendably ambitious; just what Haiti needs. He would: reroute rivers around Gonaives and other low-lying coastal cities; rebuild the infrastructure — roads and bridges, sewers; target 13 mountainous areas for massive reforestation projects; rebuild hospitals, schools and homes to higher standards; get children back in school; introduce propane gas as an alternative to tree-felling charcoal; continue the political and economic reforms of the past couple of years.
Preval envisions getting Haiti back on its feet. But more than that he wants rebuilding to take on Haiti's systemic environmental, political and economic problems. He wants a nation-building project unlike any this hemisphere has seen. His goals are lofty. They are achievable, but only with help, especially from America, which has the know-how and wherewithal. If Haiti doesn't succeed this time, its future will be like its past. Only much, much worse.