Sunday, February 18, 2018
Opinion

LeMieux: The cycle of tragedy in Haiti

Hurricane Matthew landed a direct hit to the southern peninsula of Haiti, slamming the fragile country with 145 mph winds. The Haitian government reports that 546 people were killed and 438 injured. Outside sources peg the death toll closer to 1,000.

Although some progress has been made in the three weeks since the hurricane hit, recent news reports describe the situation as grave. To understand the sense of destruction, nine out of 10 homes in one region were damaged or destroyed. Hurricane Matthew also laid waste to Haiti's prime agricultural Grand'Anse region, which provides a thin lifeline of food to a nation of starving people. Successful efforts to grow trees in a country devastated by deforestation were set back decades as Hurricane Matthew struck reforested areas and wiped out large swathes of trees.

According to the Haitian government, 1.4 million people are in need of food assistance with 800,000 in dire need of food aid. To put this all in perspective, imagine a hurricane with a direct hit on Pinellas County leaving the vast majority of residents starving and 90 percent of their homes damaged or destroyed. To make matters worse, U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal, sent to assist after the earthquake in 2010, introduced a cholera epidemic to Haiti that has claimed more than 9,000 lives. A surge in cholera cases is feared in Matthew's aftermath.

Like the devastation New Orleans suffered from Hurricane Katrina, Haiti's tragedy is due to natural and human-amplified disasters. These disasters have been plentiful — from the catastrophic earthquake of 2010 to four hurricanes that hit the nation in 2008. According to Dr. Jeffrey Masters, director of meteorology for Weather Underground, natural disasters in Haiti are exacerbated by the deforestation that has stripped bare 98 percent of the trees. Haitians unable to afford fuel to cook with chop down trees to burn. Deforested mountains turn heavy rains turn into flooding and loose soil into mudslides. In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne killed 3,000 Haitians who drowned due to torrential flooding.

Unfortunately, these disasters follow a tragic pattern. After the natural disaster occurs, the recovery disaster follows: Aid goes undistributed, and funds are misspent or pocketed by Haitian officials. At the heart of the problem is the Haitian government. Its insistence on gatekeeping the distribution of aid favors political supporters, at best, and is outright corruption at worst. Recently the New York Times reported that only 20 percent of the food delivered to a coastal community ravaged by the hurricane may have been properly distributed. Frustrated with the Haitian government after the 2010 earthquake, many aid groups sought to deliver relief directly to the Haitian people.

While serving in the U.S. Senate, I traveled to Haiti with a delegation of U.S. officials shortly after the 2010 earthquake. The capital, Port-au-Prince, was devastated. Among the rubble and ruin were the beautiful and resilient Haitian people, still smiling and always well-kept despite the ruinous conditions. Upon return to Washington, I wrote to President Barack Obama and urged him to nominate a special trustee who would have joint control along with the Haitian government of the relief effort to ensure the money donated by the U.S. government and the American people would be spent wisely. I suggested retired Secretary of State and former Gen. Colin Powell to serve in that role. Failure to insist on some mechanism of oversight and control of the Hurricane Matthew relief effort will only result in the same outcome — no real progress and another disaster in the coming years that will kill needless thousands.

So what lies next for Haiti and what should we as Americans do? As Floridians, and honorary members of the Caribbean, we have an obligation to help our brothers and sisters in need. The Haitian people are our neighbors. The driving distance between Key West and Pensacola is the same distance between Florida and Haiti. Accordingly, we should ensure aid gets to the Haitian people as soon as possible, and the U.S. military should assist in that effort. Second, the U.S. Department of Agriculture should assist Haitian farmers with their planting season that starts next month to ensure Haitians have food to eat next year. Third, reforestation efforts and resilient housing projects must be accelerated, and fuel oil should be provided to the Haitian people to keep newly planted forests from being chopped down. Finally, the United States should monitor and police disaster relief to ensure it is not being wasted or diverted.

The United States cannot solve every problem around the world. Our responsibility is first and foremost to our own people, but the Haitian people are our neighbors and we are too great of a nation to allow the cycle of tragedy to continue just miles from our shores.

George LeMieux served as a Republican U.S. senator, governor's chief of staff and deputy attorney general.

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