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WASHINGTON (NNPA) - It's been described as "The world's Katrina," a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that completely devastated and uprooted the Black island nation of Haiti, leaving an estimated 100,000 dead and millions more homeless, injured and in despair. Government officials are predicting that the death toll could eventually rise to half a million, making it one of the most destructive natural disasters ever.
Already reeling from a string of recent national setbacks, including political upheavals and an overwhelming series of hurricanes in 2008, one of the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere now has to deal with this tragedy.
"Port-au-Prince is destroyed. We have a lot death, a lot of casualties, human casualties, material casualties, we are dead," said Cassandra Valbrun in a phone interview from Haiti. The 34-year-old married mother of two works in the Pout-au-Prince suburb of Pétionville. She was still at work when the earthquake struck Jan. 12.
"We need water, medication and tents because people are sleeping outside of their house," she said. "We are sleeping on the street, on yards, on open fields and it's cold at night. It's like 21-Celsius degree. It's cold. I'm sleeping in a neighbor's back yard. We are surviving. We are on our own with food we've had at home. We've come together and we've tried to give some cereal to the kids. We adults eat once in the day to make the food last, so we don't spoil it. And I don't know how long we will keep doing that."
Howard University international student Roberte Exantus is also from the Haitian suburb of Pétionville. The 20-year-old was in Washington, D.C. when the earthquake hit and while she was fortunate enough to hear from her parents she still has heard no news from other members of her family.
"My father, I recently heard from him, but my friends, my brother is still there. But I'm waiting, I'm hoping and waiting and praying," she shared.
When Exantus spoke to her father by phone she said that he seemed to be in a delirious mental state. He just told her to stay strong.
"He was just saying the dead people are everywhere," Exantus said. "Everyone is on their own right now. A lot talk about a lot of the help they are getting but, according to my dad, they are waiting. Nothing has gotten there yet. Food is scarce in Haiti right now so, I don't know what the deal is how he's getting food but … he doesn't care about food at the moment he only cares about finding family members."
The recovery of Haiti in the aftermath of the country's biggest earthquake in 200 years is enormous. In fact, the recovery will involve one of history's largest international relief efforts.
Americans were just getting over the perceived donor fatigue tied to the Gulf Coast recovery after Hurricane Katrina that hit nearly five years ago. Nevertheless, based on reports from relief organizations, the American public has responded fervently upon hearing news of Haiti. President Obama has pledged $100 million dollars in U. S. aid as and spared no expense in resources for relief for the Caribbean nation.
"At this very moment one of the largest relief efforts in our recent history is moving towards Haiti," the president said. "More American search and rescue teams are coming. More food. More water. Doctors, nurses, paramedics. More of the people, equipment and capabilities that can make the difference between life and death."
Flanked by former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, he also announced the formation of a relief fund under their names, which can be found at www.ClintonBushHaitiFund.org
The Department of State, USAID and the United States Southern Command have begun working to coordinate an assessment on humanitarian assistance.
"This is one of those moments that calls out for American leadership," Obama said.
Not even a week before the disaster, USAID swore in new administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah and its mission director for Haiti, Dr. Careene Dei, two officials who will likely be responsible for spearheading the United States' relief efforts.
According to USAID, the federal government's agency that is responsible for administering civilian foreign aid will provide 14,550 tons of food aid that consists of rice, corn soy blend and vegetable oil, which they hold will help feed 1.2 million people for two weeks.
"Food aid will be critical in the coming weeks," said Shah. "By acting quickly now, we can help those most affected by this disaster in their time of need."
The U.S. Navy will send more than a half dozen ships to Haiti and the Pentagon will be sending thousands of Marines to assist with relief and security.
The federal government has granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitian nationals currently in the U.S. This designation will provide temporary refuge to Haitian nationals already in the country for the 18 months by legally allowing them to live and work in the U.S. living and working in the country for the next 18 months.
"It is important to note that TPS will apply only to those individuals who were in the United States as of January 12, 2010. Those who attempt to travel to the United States after January 12, 2010 will not be eligible for TPS and will be repatriated," said Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano in a statement.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Ca.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, released a statement giving the support of the African-American members of congress for Haiti.
"Over the last few years Haiti has experienced an extraordinary set of challenges from high food prices and food shortages to natural disasters," Lee stated. "Haiti will need increased attention and resources from the international community to help it recover during this difficult period. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Haitian people and the Haitian American community."
Last June, Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Ca.), along with others, was successful in lobbying multi-lateral banks such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to forgive the more than $1 billion dollar debt. She said that the island can't seem catch a break with its history of varied misgivings.
"I had hoped that this year would be a year of recovery for Haiti," Waters said. "Yet this earthquake could prove to be even more damaging than the storms of 2008. As much as one can be at this time, I am encouraged by statements of support and solidarity from President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and the international community. I urge the U.S. Government, the international community, nonprofit organizations and even individual people to take all appropriate actions to respond to this earthquake and help the Haitian people recover from this terrible tragedy."
Public and corporate donations and resources have poured in hard and heavily as well.
Corporations such as Coca-Cola, Digicel, Lowe's, Microsoft and UPS have all pledged a $1 million dollars or more to organizations leading on-the-ground relief efforts. Some companies like FedEx and Wal-Mart have sent pallets of supplies in addition to money.
Relief organizations such as the Red Cross and Yéle Haiti Foundation, which was founded by popular Haiti-born recording artist Wyclef John, has seen record amounts of donations coming through digital means such as the web and through mobile phone texts. Word spread quickly through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter that people could easily donate to the organization of their choice by simply sending a text message. After urging people to help through Twitter messages John was able to raise half a million dollars in less than a day for his non-profit.
"Either you can use your cell phone to text "Yéle" to 501501, which will automatically donate $5 to the Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund (it will be charged to your cell phone bill), or you can visit Yele.org and click on DONATE," John wrote from his Twitter account.
The Red Cross has confirmed that it has committed $10 million dollars to relief efforts and that it has raised $3 million through its text message fund raising campaign, which had donors text messaging the word HAITI to the number 90999 to donate $10 toward relief in Haiti.
The NAACP also created their own Haiti relief fund that donors could contribute to through their mobile device or through the organization's website.
"Now is the time for action, the NAACP is asking all of our members to do what they can to assist the people of Haiti that have lost their homes, businesses, family members, and livelihoods," urged NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous.
The NAACP is one of string of non-profit organizations that have set up Haiti relief funds.
Said Gary Flowers, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, "When disasters like this occur, as in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck this country, organizations, like the more than 30 national African-American Civil Rights and service organizations that make up the Black Leadership Forum, come together to assist in the relief effort and provide support to those in dire need."