Tales from the Trail

from Environment Forum:

Appropriately enough, it’s National Tsunami Awareness Week

The U.S. government has announced this as National Tsunami Awareness Week, starting just days after a disastrous tsunami powered over Japan's northeast coast. Not that anyone necessarily needed reminding.

This week's advisory, which urges U.S. residents to be prepared for a damaging series of waves, was scheduled before the March 11 Japanese catastrophe, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This is the second annual observance of Tsunami Awareness Week. It's too soon to tell if there might be a pattern emerging: last year's observance came not long after a giant wave hit the Chilean port of Talcahuano following an 8.8 magnitude quake along Chile's coast.

Here's how the Japanese tsunami spread its force across the Pacific:

While the United States may not seem like a prime tsunami target, the Hawaiian Islands and Alaska have long been susceptible. NOAA notes the United States has more coastline than any country on Earth and is in proximity to several major fault lines. Any coastline is potentially in a tsunami's path.

Because the danger from tsunamis can't be eliminated, NOAA is concentrating on preparedness, including its main tsunami website. President Barack Obama stressed early warning systems in a statement this week.

JAPAN-QUAKE“As we offer our assistance to those impacted by this tragedy, we also renew our commitment to ensuring preparedness along our shores,” Obama said. “Efficient warning systems and awareness in coastal communities are vital to protecting Americans in at-risk areas of the country.”

Washington Extra – Storm clouds over Haiti

There was a tremendous outpouring of goodwill and money for Haiti after the quake, which prevented a further humanitarian catastrophe. But so far, nine months after the capital was devastated, progress in “building back better” seems painfully slow. haitiRubble still chokes the narrow streets of Port-au-Prince, and 1.3 million people occupy every available scrap of land in tents awaiting resettlement, or even just a government plan on what to do with them.

Given the mind-boggling scale of the disaster, the weakness of the government and economy even before the earthquake, the lack of land as well as clearly defined land ownership records, it is unfair to expect too much.

But today everyone seems to be asking: What has all this goodwill achieved in terms of lasting benefits to Haiti? One thing that is clear from our interviews this week is the government, local elites and the international community seem to be playing something of a blame game.

The complicated question of Haiti’s orphans

HAITIThe devastation caused by Haiti’s earthquake has extended to some of its youngest and most powerless victims: orphans awaiting clearance to join adoptive families in the United States.

The U.S. government has already said it will allow orphaned children from Haiti to come to the United States temporarily for needed medical treatment, and on Wednesday expanded its effort.

Now three departments — State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services — say they’ll join together to deal with what is a complicated question, according to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Haiti’s “Wizard-of-Oz” president – nowhere to be seen

QUAKE-HAITI/There’s something weirdly symbolic in the sight of thousands of homeless Haitians massed in a sprawling tent city bang in front of the collapsed icing-sugar white presidential palace.
 
They’re here because it’s the biggest open space in the capital, but it somehow looks like an appeal for President Rene Preval to come out and speak to his people and reassure them that he stands behind them, that together the country will get through the catastrophe caused by Tuesday’s earthquake.
 
Four days after Tuesday’s earthquake the Haitian flag that once fluttered above the National Palace still lies in a wilted heap over the toppled white ruin. In the park opposite, men and women strip to their underpants to bathe in a large fountain and scrub their clothes. The hang their laundry on the park rails.
 
Garbage is scattered everywhere and the smell of urine and excrement is getting worse.
 
Far from coming to address them, Preval is holed up in the judicial police headquarters near the airport, mumbling that he can’t do much when half the government’s offices are destroyed and he doesn’t even have a cell phone signal.
 
Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who lost their homes and families have been left to fend for themselves, with no food handouts and no proper medical treatment. In many cases, they are seriously injured.
    
Foreign rescue workers are battling round the clock digging for survivors. But in the absence of a working government, the disaster relief teams who are supposed to be delivering food, latrines and medical supplies are still mostly dithering about sorting out logistics.
 
From the shambles outside the presidential palace, you wonder if anybody is in charge at all.
 
“The country is not working right now. It’s not even eating,” remarked Louis Widlyne, one of the countless people sleeping on a sheet that marks out his living quarters in the park.
 
A police officer called Joe was more sympathetic. He had received no orders since Tuesday’s disaster, but decided on his own on Saturday that it was time to go back on the beat.
    
“Preval should have come and spoken to his people, but he hasn’t,” he said. “He is like that. It’s just the kind of president he is.” 

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Click here for more coverage of the Haiti earthquake.

Haiti’s forgotten bodies

QUAKE-HAITI/As a ragtag group of Haitian rescue workers tried to dig a dead man from underneath a collapsed telecoms company building in Port-au-Prince this week, the firm’s owner told me how the 40-year-old security guard had been a cherished employee.
 
Only a short time before, Tarek el Bakri, a Lebanese businessman who lived at the top of the now perilously slanted building, had paid for the funeral of the man’s grandson, so much was he part of the family. Now he was paying workers to free his corpse.
 
The workers yelled and squabbled about how best to get at him — only his arm, shoulder and head were visible — without causing the structure, which had desks sandwiched between its layers, and a car crushed underneath, to collapse further.
 
A water mains had burst, causing a small fountain to spray out near the dead man’s head. At one point an excavator churned toward the site, but the workers waved it away.
 
The man had three children, el Bakri told me. He was crushed along with two cleaning staff. In all, Bakri lost 11 employees in offices across the city, as well as his own home.
 
He said he was the only one pushing for the bodies to be pulled out. He hadn’t heard anything from city officials about what he should do. “In any other country people would gather together to help each other,” he said. “Here you are on your own. Nobody cares.”
 
When I returned a day later, the man’s corpse was still there. His dark skin dustier than before. The fountain was still spurting.
 
I remembered then what el Bakri had told me: looters squeezed in to steal all the office computers and cell phone stocks well before anybody had tried to free the victims.

 

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Reuters photos by Eduardo Munoz and Carlos Barria.

Click here for more stories on the Haiti earthquake disaster.

Haiti – shutting out the cries

QUAKE-HAITI/Last night, I slept on the floor with the cries of the wounded searing through the night air across the hills of Port-au-Prince. Every so often, there was an outbreak of wailing and shrieking, when someone died. Sometimes, prayers were sung and chanted. We are all becoming inured to the pain – I found myself longing for earplugs.

At 5 a.m. in the morning, there was an after-shock from the earthquake, one of the strongest yet. The ground shook, sending more rubble falling off the half-destroyed Hotel Villa Creole, waking up dozens of exhausted journalists, and causing more pain to the many wounded and homeless Haitians sleeping on the street outside the hotel. The few waiters still working here served us coffee, while volunteers at the impromptu hospital on our porch tried to close gashes and keep people alive.
 
By midday, I had visited a dozen makeshift refugee camps where no one had received a drop of water or a bite to eat from authorities or aid agencies. I found nine mass graves outside the capital, the putrid smell of piled up corpses still hanging on my T-shirt. I saw chaos at the airport where Haitians are clamoring to get out, and the world is clamoring to get aid in.
 
Now, after grilled chicken at the hotel (where does it keep coming from?) it is time to step over the bodies on the porch again to go and check reports of rioting downtown and burning bodies in a nearby refugee settlement. Then, it will be back to the Villa Creole to see if the water is back on for a shower in the room I share with about a dozen colleagues. Despite the large comfortable bed, no one dares sleep there because of the after-shocks. But until the water went off, it was worth the risk for a few minutes to shower and get clean.
 
Yesterday, the wine and beer flowed for some during dinner, though conversation was interrupted by chilling groans from over the wall. Don’t take any of that flippantly  — it is most certainly not written that way. After nearly two decades covering the trouble-spots of Latin America, Africa and elsewhere, this correspondent and most of the multitude of veteran colleagues here still find the surreal juxtapositions deeply disturbing. Everyone reacts in their own way — some stop to help, others walk on by. But nobody is sleeping soundly, believe me.

 

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Reuters photos by Carlos Barria and Jorge Silva

Click here for more stories on the Haiti earthquake disaster.

Clinton says Haiti’s development prospects can still be good

Former President Bill Clinton, who is helping to coordinate global relief for Haiti with former President George W. Bush, CLIMATE/COPENHAGEN-BILLCLINTONsays the quake-stricken country could bounce back much more quickly than people might think.

Clinton told NBC’s Today show that Haiti had made it onto the path to modernization when the earthquake struck on Tuesday. But he denied claims that the devastation may have set the impoverished country’s development back by half a century.

“Because they started from a low base, we can reconstitute where they are quicker than everyone thinks. I just do not agree that they’ve been set back 50 years,” he said. “If we go back to work, we’ll be all right.”

Helping Haiti: the nightmare scenario

QUAKE-HAITI/About the only thing that has gone right in the Haitian earthquake is the weather.

The dry, warm nights have been kind to the multitudes of homeless, injured and terrified Haitians sleeping out in streets, parks and pavements all over the nation. Not to mention the ever-growing legion of foreign rescuers, aid-workers and journalists who — like the locals — fear sleeping indoors because of still-rumbling aftershocks.

Apart from that, it has been a sheer nightmare for millions of Haitians, and for aid-groups wanting to help them, after the worst disaster on record in the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation. No one knows the death-toll, and many bodies still lie untouched in the street, but clearly thousands, or tens of thousands, have perished. The Red Cross here estimates 45-50,000 dead, and 3 million injured and homeless.

Brzezinski sees encouraging signs emerging from Haitian catastrophe

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It might sound Pollyannaish coming from anybody other than Zbigniew Brzezinski, the hard-nosed intellectual who was Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. But he says the gigantic catastrophe in Haiti may suggest some good things about the state of the modern world.

“As I look at this tragedy and as I look at this enormous human suffering, I’m also a little bit encouraged by the symbolism of the collective global response,” Brzezinski said in an interview with MSNBC.

Help has arrived quickly not only from the United States, the country’s biggest and richest neighbor, but also from other countries including Brazil and China. That could be a hopeful sign of an emerging international template for responding to turmoil around the world, including in hot spots like Afghanistan.