Thursday, January 21, 2010


Several days ago I volunteered on a relief mission to Haiti that brought in nearly 20,000 lbs of supplies. While the trip was brief, I did travel into the city of Port-au-Prince to deliver medical supplies to a key hospital and witnessed the devastation first hand.

Upon arrival at the airport, the first thing you see is the sheer scale of the relief effort. Numerous C-17s and other cargo planes are continually flying in and out, offloading vast amounts of supplies. Dozens of military helicopters are simultaneously in operation on a scale far beyond anything I have ever seen. Thousands of military and civilian personnel are active from the US, UN, Haiti, and relief organizations.

Driving into the heart of the capital city the need for such scale becomes apparent. Because the airport is farther from the epicenter, the damage you first see appears relatively minor -- cracks in buildings, damaged walls, and littered streets. But soon the sheer magnitude of the devastation becomes difficult to comprehend. Many entire buildings have been reduced to rubble. Makeshift tent camps dominate plazas and parks. Perhaps the most haunting are the buildings that have partially failed but not entirely collapsed. The National Palace stands a surreal site with tilted domes and crumbling walls. Other government buildings are completely leveled.

The vast majority of the former buildings in the hospital I visited are too damaged to be safe. The remaining two buildings that are being used to care for patients show their own signs of compromise. Yet heroic volunteers are able to serve over 1000 patients with a wide variety of serious injuries. They are short on supplies and only recently got electric power so they have light which allows them to work at night.

However, the real heroes are the people of Haiti. Despite tremendous challenge and suffering, they still show an incredible strength of spirit and resilience to the harshest of conditions. Seeing the people firsthand left me with a vastly different impression than I had going in based on news reports. Instead of roving gangs of violent criminals, I found people caring for the wounded and providing critical supplies to those most in need. Instead of people weeping of despair, I saw people busy rebuilding their lives in the most challenging of environments.

Yet immense challenges do remain and it is a race around the clock to prevent suffering, untreated injury, and loss of life. I believe there are several key factors that could tilt the odds dramatically. First, while there is tremendous relief effort from the US, UN, Haiti, and NGOs, the coordination and organization between these remains unclear. It is critical to have top level command and control across the entire breadth of efforts in order to maximize effectiveness.

Second, it is necessary to scale up the provisioning of shelter, food, water, sanitation, and health care by at least an order of magnitude. As much as it has difficult associations, I believe the best way to accomplish this is large scale temporary tent camps to house hundreds of thousands of people. I believe these should be near the airport or other facilities to which supplies can be readily delivered.

Lastly, there are several categories of people who should be evacuated out of Haiti to other countries (notably the US) where there is far more capacity to provide care. This includes those who are severely injured as well as orphaned children. While each of us is a citizen of a particular country, we are all citizens of the world. The responsibility falls on all of us to lend a hand when a tragedy of this magnitude befalls some of us.

Photos from my trip are here. Note they may be difficult to look at:

In the past two days, we have posted fresh high resolution imagery in Google Maps which I hope will be valuable to aid workers:

The main Google crisis response page for the Haiti earthquake is here and has numerous resources including how you can help:

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