Opinion: Relief requires flexibility

PARIS, France — For world-class calamities, a United States military airlift is the best way to bring massive relief. Yet when minutes matter, it is often the greatest obstacle.

The swarm of troops that choked off Port-au-Prince’s crippled airport as they set up camp was like firemen rushing to a blazing building and then stopping for lunch.

In the long run, orderly deployment helps relief teams work more efficiently. But by then, cries from the rubble have ceased. Many of the injured are dead, untreated. And angry, desperate people are ready to kill for a drink of water or a scrap of food.

(GlobalPost correspondent Ioan Grillo in Port-au-Prince reports that desperate Haitians have begun to fend for themselves.)

Michelle Chouinard of Doctors Without Borders/Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), old hands at handling emergencies, barely masked her wrath in a television interview.

She saw U.S. transports land weapons and rulebooks, but an MSF charter carrying a 100-bed field hospital and two operating theaters was among aircraft turned away.

Flights from all directions were diverted or scrubbed, delaying the arrival of doctors with vital medicines and rescue teams with sniffer dogs.

It is hardly fair to criticize from 4,500 miles away, but I have covered similar post-calamity chaos a dozen times and watched U.S. forces in action since the 1960s.

Military commanders operate by the book, but disasters don’t correspond to books. Relief takes flexible thinking by experienced pros.

After Haiti, the world needs to figure this out.

As the experts insist, an international disaster command should coordinate all players. The Pentagon must consider force security. But the victims matter, too.

In 1991, when a cyclone killed 140,000 in Bangladesh, the U.S. Marines’ Operation Sea Angels saved lives with daring helicopter airlifts to outlying islands.

But in Somalia the next year, generals ignored pleas to deliver aid directly to the stricken center of the country. They bogged down in nightmare at the Mogadishu port.

As families starved hundreds of miles away, U.S. Marines moved around crates with forklifts while Somali kids harassed their patrols in the capital’s mean streets.

When Rwandans fled to the Congo in 1994, the U.S. Air Force immobilized relief agency trucks for days, promising an airlift from Germany but not saying where it would land.

Air Force commanders finally sent C130s but decided not to risk landing them. Supplies were shoved out at high altitude. Most were lost. Some went to the bad guys.

Chasing the pallets, I saw a British aid worker scream obscenities at the vanishing aircraft as he waded into a swamp after scattered crates. One load nearly smashed into a U.N. school.
Without enough news coverage, or with too much, lessons from such instances are lost. Official spokesmen and politicians tend to distort the picture.

During that Congo fiasco, my New York editors inexplicably put aside my eyewitness account. They quoted a U.S. military spokesman in Germany claiming total success.

And now Haiti, the world’s biggest emergency humanitarian challenge ever, is a case for careful study.

Of course, roads are cut and systems have collapsed. Earthquakes do that. Many of Haiti’s poor have lived without roofs for decades. What matters is fast relief.

The key is speed. Even if supplies go astray, they help someone. C130s can fly low and drop. Helicopters don’t need roads. No one on the ground is shooting.

Seasoned reporters should play a role in pinpointing need so relief teams can adjust their priorities and donors can contribute effectively.

The BBC did a superb job. Correspondents showed the temblor’s horrendous breadth and touches of human detail. Repeatedly, they noted the impact of absent relief.

With measured emotion, they found isolated pockets of suffering. They explained how corrupt leaders, enabled by a world that did too little, have made Haiti a basket case.

Al Jazeera did well with fewer resources. Its cameras showed U.S. troops digging in with elaborate preparation as relief supplies piled high.

It shined light on Jacmel, a beautiful old city of 60,000 in ruins, which was forgotten with attention riveted on Port-au-Prince.

But most Americans watched CNN, which managed to make much of the crisis about itself.
Anchors bemoaned that Anderson Cooper was delayed getting in. Screen crawls announced “breaking news”: Dr. Sanjay Gupta helped a 14-day-old infant.

CNN boasted that it had the largest team on the ground. It did some good work. Christiane Amanpour hammered at the airport jam. But newscasts often blurred the real story, focusing on Washington comment and Twitter tidbits.

Monster calamities all have much in common. For laudable human reasons and for less noble purposes, everybody wants to get in on the act.

Unless practiced pros set priorities so emergency teams can do their work, nature’s toll is magnified. That is what feeds the civil disorder that the Pentagon fears.