Sanela Diana Jenkins

Don’t Let Haiti’s Natural Disaster Become a Man-Made Tragedy

The chaotic streets of Haiti feel eerily familiar to me, even though this is my first trip to Port-au-Prince. The crumbled buildings, the crying children and the general sense of despair reminded me almost immediately upon landing here this week of my homeland in Bosnia. The depredations visited upon Bosnia were entirely man-made, but the natural destruction in Haiti also has the very real potential to devolve into a long-term — and man-made — crisis.

That is, unless the international assistance that has poured into Haiti over the past two weeks continues long after television crews fly home and the heart-rending images they broadcast fade from the world’s screens. I know, because I saw it happen in Bosnia.

Immediately after the quake struck Haiti, it was clear that private aid organizations would have a role to play — not only in delivering immediate relief, but also in helping to rebuild such vital institutions as hospitals and schools over the months and years to come. Working with Sean Penn, I mobilized the resources of the Sanela Diana Jenkins Foundation and together we formed the Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization.

Sean and I arrived this week in Port-au-Prince with our first planeload of doctors and supplies. All told, nearly a dozen volunteer physicians with a variety of specialties flew with us. We also brought six tons of medical supplies. Not even the experience of living in a war zone prepared me for the ruins of Port-au-Prince. It’s one thing to see clips of toppled buildings and piled bodies; it’s another to be surrounded by an overwhelming desperation as tens of thousands of people lack even the most basic necessities. At Port-au-Prince’s main hospital, basic supplies are desperately rare – including antibiotics to treat infection and narcotics to dull excruciating pain. We expect a second flight full of doctors and supplies to arrive Saturday, but the need is ongoing.

Basic shelter, including tents, is also needed. Since arriving, our team has lived primitively in tents without water or electricity. Yet everywhere we go, we are reminded that even these conditions are considered luxurious in Port-au-Prince.

Aware of the fact that some well-meaning people actually get in the way of relief efforts, our organization works directly with other aid groups as a facilitator and expeditor. We don’t drop off boxes of supplies we think are needed; under the direction of our lead physician, a specialist in emergency medicine and disaster response named Dr. Raul Ruiz, we find out on a daily basis what doctors and others need to ease immediate suffering. If they are running short on antibiotics, we deliver those. If they need clean water filters, we find those. If doctors are working on their fourth day without sleep, we fly in volunteers with the specific skills necessary to treat wide-scale trauma.

The need is immense. Before the quake, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The government was ill-equipped to deal with the overwhelming scale of destruction. Modest efforts like ours, multiplied across hundreds of organizations, are one of the many building blocks necessary to reconstruct the country. Not even the rubble of Bosnia after a half-decade of war prepared me for the scene in Port-au-Prince.

But Bosnia can hold lessons for the long-term effort in Haiti. Like the war was for Bosnia, the quake will be the defining event for a generation of Haitians who have lost their families, their homes, their livelihoods. Even after the ground stops shaking, normal life will return only slowly to Haiti. My experience in Bosnia has taught me that the international community – working with the Haitian government and private aid groups like ours – must focus quickly on rebuilding core institutions such as schools and hospitals so the twin scourges of chronically poor health and ignorance do not take hold and fester.

After that, it will require years of economic and agricultural development for Haiti to pull itself out of decades of poverty and environmental degradation. The generosity and ingenuity demonstrated over the past two weeks – from international aid groups to individuals sending donations via cell phone – have helped ease the suffering of thousands. Something as basic as a filter to provide clean water to a family can literally make the difference between life and death.

That generous spirit must continue or the lives saved in these frantic first days will be condemned to poverty, sickness and ignorance for years to come. Haiti is on a slow, arduous track toward recovery from a natural disaster. It will take all of us demonstrating that same purpose and dedication to avoid an even worse man-made disaster.