Seeing American Disaster From the Third World

In Gonaïves, health care workers and rescuers from around the world struggled to meet the needs of survivors of the devastating floods unleashed by Tropical Storm Jeanne

In Gonaïves, health care workers and rescuers from around the world struggled to meet the needs of survivors of the devastating floods unleashed by Tropical Storm Jeanne, which swept through the northern region of Haiti in September of last year. (Photo: Robert Sullivan / AFP-Getty Images)

One year ago, I was wading through the water that had devastated Gonaïves, Haiti, counting bodies. Small children were washed up on the roadside, and men, women, boys and girls, frozen in gestures of despair, piled up on the floor of the town morgue. The toll was about 2,000. The horror was indescribable, yet the tragedy predictable. It capped a year of government overthrow and ongoing political violence, not to mention other deadly floods and landslides — all in the poorest, most unstable country in the Americas.

If Gonaïves was a grotesque symptom of a chronic disease, a catastrophe of that scale in the United States, the richest, most powerful country on Earth, seemed like a strange suburban accident, a child trapped in the trunk of his parents’ Mercedes. If Gonaïves was shocking, New Orleans was baffling. How could we let this happen?

Haiti and the United States, just 700 miles apart, are the Hemisphere’s two extremes. The per capita income in the States is 100 times that of Haiti, where luxuries like phones, transportation, electricity and drinking water are out of reach to most. When I asked Gonaïves residents how they could explain their latest tragedy, some said it was part of living in a dysfunctional country with no government, while others simply pointed to the nearby mountainsides, so eroded from deforestation it looked scraped at by giant claws.

So I was baffled to hear about Americans going through what Haitians had experienced, until I realized the victims of Katrina had a couple things in common with Haitians: poverty and neglect. True, income in the States has been growing while the Haitian economy has shrunk, but almost all of the income growth in the States since 1975 has been for the richest 20 percent of households. Today the economic gap between Haiti and the United States is greater than ever, as is the gap between rich and poor in the United States.

The people most hurt by Katrina were those who had been hurting for a long time — the poor and black disproportionately living in flood lands and lacking cars, communication, a place to escape to and money for a hotel.

At an interfaith prayer service at Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts earlier this month, Keith Horton, an evacuee from New Orleans, said that before Katrina there was another hurricane in his hometown — “a murdering hurricane.” He said, “Before the storm down there, believe me, they were killing like crazy.” The city’s murder rate was 10 times that of the national average.

As in New Orleans, armed looters hampered relief efforts in Haiti, and ongoing violence in that country has hobbled aid in general. If only the problems had been addressed before the violence began.

Most Katrina victims, like Haitians, are descendents of slaves in a territory controlled by France until 200 years ago. Haitians overthrew the French, becoming the first black republic in the world (and Louisiana was sold to the Americans), but the United States refused to recognize Haiti until it freed its own slaves 60 years later. It’s hardly surprising that the United States, where segregation laws were enforced for the next century, employed trade policies that were favorable to their own interest, and not that of their black neighbor. Even today, Congress consistently fails to pass proposed legislation that would grant Haiti favorable trade status.

Haiti was once covered in forests, sugar plantations, coffee trees and rice paddies, but, thanks in part to U.S. trade policies, poor peasants scrape by on quick-yield crops that do little for soil preservation and by cutting down the few remaining trees for charcoal — the fuel most Haitians use for cooking.

Gonaïves was flooded by rains from an indirect hit by Tropical Storm Jeanne — rains that would not have caused significant damage to a town with functioning canals and surrounded by mountains still covered in trees. Bound by poverty, Haiti has not had the means to fix its ancient canals or reverse decades of deforestation that has spared little more than 10 percent of the country’s trees.

Through its Agency for International Development in Haiti, the United States spends tens of millions of dollars each year on programs related to education, economic recovery, health, institutional development and disaster relief. But at the same time, it spends billions of dollars on domestic crop subsidies that help put farmers in countries like Haiti out of business. Today, Haiti spends three times in imports (almost all from the United States) what it makes in exports.

Weeks after the Gonaïves floods, then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson visited the U.N. military base in Gonaïves for a briefing. Boarding the helicopter back to Port-au-Prince, he declared, “Help is on the way!” The help would come in the form of $235,000-worth of medical supplies. This was useful to U.N. doctors delivering the endless stream of babies at the town’s military clinic. But then what? Discharged mothers waded through muddy water with their newborns to sleep on pews in a crowded church or on a neighbor’s roof or to spend a day in line at a food distribution. One woman begged me to adopt her granddaughter Jeanne, who had just been born on the second floor of the town hall.

Gonaïves was a scream for help, to which the United States responded with a pat on the head. $235,000 is less than a 20th of what many American C.E.O.s make in a year.

With massive help from churches and the private sector, the U.S. government has responded to the cries from New Orleans, albeit belatedly.

After a slow response and a few gaffs, President Bush seemed surprisingly enlightened in his first post-flood address to the nation. His words suggested he gets the concept of inequality as a legacy of racial discrimination and that he’s determined to take “bold action” against poverty.

If the U.S. government learned something from the shock of Katrina, perhaps the shame of having a poor nation shivering on our doorstep will grow strong enough to inspire real “bold action” against poverty, even beyond our borders.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Amy Bracken.