Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Coming Back from Quake and Flood

One year ago, Haiti experienced a powerful earthquake which destroyed vast swaths of the already dysfunctional country.

This week, we're watching the incredible footage of flooding which is ravaging Australia's third largest city, Brisbane.

One year after the massive catastrophe in Haiti, little reconstruction has taken place, and Haitians still crawl around the rubble of their former communities.

Already, in interview after interview in Queensland, Australians are vowing to help each other get back on their feet. Australians work together, they say. We'll do what we can to reflect, regroup, and rebuild.

Why the striking disparity between the lethargic, virtually non-existent rebuilding in Haiti and the incessant talk of camaraderie in Australia?

Chances are, we won't see the outpouring of international aid and calls for financial assistance benefiting Australia's flood victims. At least, certainly not like we did after the tragic earthquake in Haiti. And of course, part of the reason for the different responses to the crises involve the two countries' vastly different economies. But I'm not talking about the grand relief projects that follow natural disasters. I'm talking about the ordinary citizens of these two countries and their strikingly opposite mindsets.

True, whenever disaster strikes in the United States, government officials and civic leaders say that the community is so strong, they'll pull together and get through this thing. In particular, New York City likes to brag about the resiliency of its residents and how they help each other out during a crisis - even though during normal times, they stalk the city's sidewalks as if they loath everyone walking past them.

And while watching video and listening to audio from Australia, hearing them express similar patriotism in English - albeit with that funny accent of theirs - sounds ordinary to us. But even though the French Creole spoken by Haitians is foreign to most Americans, I don't recall seeing any similar effort towards solidarity at any time during this past year of supposed recovery. Have you?

Chances are, within a year, we will not have heard much more about the flooding around Brisbane. But you can count on regularly hearing about the slothful recovery in Haiti as it drags into its second year, and on, and on. Even though Brisbane's flooding is the worst natural disaster in its history, Haiti will trump Brisbane because of its myriad socioeconomic problems and utterly corrupt political culture.

I'm not saying that Haitians don't deserve our support and attention. Well, maybe I'm kinda saying that, because even today, all over the Internet, I've seen photos and videos of Haitians simply wandering aimlessly around their ruins; no shovels, no work groups, no expressed desire to help clean anything up. Maybe that helps explain why hardly anything is getting done. Are they all waiting for somebody else to do the work?

Clearing rubble doesn't require advanced degrees or even a grade-school education, two things we already know Haiti had in woefully short supply. Millions of dollars in already-donated relief funds still sit in bank accounts because, as international agencies have said, they don't want it wasted. They're careful, however, to refrain from saying what they fear it would be wasted on.

Bleeding hearts around the world shake their heads at the sorrow that is Haiti, and at how the post-industrialized world appears to be dragging its feet. But isn't it strange to hear little of that from former president Bill Clinton, who seems to have made fundraising for Haiti his latest career. He's not one to admit defeat, but surely he knows the score.

Watching the flooding disaster unfold in Australia, we can hurt for the people who are witnessing their cars wash away, their businesses get inundated, and their homes surrender to the surge of muddy water. But we know that the industriousness of the Australians will ensure a respectable recovery.

When news of Haiti's earthquake began to spread, I sank a little bit inside as I realized the West will be expected to take care of everything. And that the nightmare that already was Haiti would just get even further institutionalized.

That's not a very uplifting view on humanity, is it? Might money really be the great unequalizer? Perhaps Australia's resiliency could be at least partially ascribed to its affluence, its vastly different history as a penal colony instead of a conquered territory, and it's close association with Britain as a Commonwealth nation.

Whatever the reason for the disparity, somebody's going to be stuck with paying for Haiti's reconstruction. And at least financially, it won't be the Haitians.
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