May 29, 2024

The Key Difference in the U.S. Response in New Orleans and Haiti

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was a disaster area. Despite the fact that the dangers of a large hurricane scenario were well-known to everyone from inhabitants to government officials, nothing seemed to go right in the response to the severe flooding that, as predicted, followed landfall. Now residents of Haiti are hurting after an even more destructive natural disaster, a 7.0 earthquake that leveled many of the island nation’s buildings and destroyed much of its infrastructure. President Obama immediately promised American aid. How will the U.S. response differ from that of New Orleans?

The primary difference between the two response scenarios is that President Obama’s immediate reaction to the earthquake in Haiti was to mobilize the U.S. military, the one branch of government that, if given the latitude to execute its responsibilities, can and will efficiently carry out a plan and see it through to a successful conclusion.

Pentagon officials say that more than 10,000 U.S. troops will be in or near Haiti by Monday, alongside hundreds of civilian officials from U.S. federal and local governments. Denis McDonough, the National Security Council’s chief of staff, told reporters that the military had helped fly in 106 medical personnel from the Department of Health and Human Services, with a second team en route.

Obviously disaster response is not the primary purpose of the U.S. armed forces. As a non-vet I have little insight into how much/little training the troops being sent have in terms of what they’ll see when they get there en masse. But I’m confident that their ability to respond will be greater and faster than that of any other group that could be sent.

Certainly both the state and federal governments’ actions in the New Orleans crisis were sadly inadequate. Frankly speaking, the Bush administration expected too much competency out of state officials, some of whom elected to lay down on the job and effectively go on strike for political reasons.

But the FEMA organization was also incompetent to deal with the situation on the ground. Government bureaucrats cannot be expected to deal with emergency situations because they are inherently geared toward least-cost, least-effort solutions like the one we ultimately saw take shape in New Orleans.

It’s difficult to understand why we were not more prepared for a disaster of epic proportions in that city given everything that was known about its dangerous situation. And the risk was known, and predicted, years in advance of Katrina. But non-military elements of governments do not prepare well for improbable possibilities and we saw the result in New Orleans. Unfortunately, this is what we can expect as the rule so long as rescue and recovery operations are left in civilian hands. But can you imagine the outrage that would have come from the left if President Bush had attempted to make New Orleans a military response?

Haiti, on the other hand, will be tended to by an elite organization with a command-and-control hierarchy that’s well-oiled and practiced in responding to stressful, unexpected situations with insufficient time to prepare and less-than-desired amounts of resources. The people of Haiti will be well-served by our men and women in uniform.

Even so, there is a great need for resources in Haiti that cannot – and should not – be met entirely by the U.S. government. There are many ways to donate to relief efforts taking place in Haiti. Please choose one and make a donation, even if it is a small one. For what it’s worth, being familiar with Joe White’s work, I chose to give to his Kanakuk Ministries instead of one of the major aid organizations.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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