The storm brought massive destruction. Flooding was considerable…. Houses collapsed on themselves. The roofs of those that did not became the last refuge for desperate men, women and children. With no food or water, they prayed for help, but it did not arrive.
Katrina is still burned in my psyche as one of the most catastrophic events in recent memory. The harsh divides of class and race and their connection to access were clear. Yet, what I just described is the scene unfolding in Haiti in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav and Hanna.
The death toll in Haiti to date well exceeds 100, with thousands displaced and stranded, and President René Préval has called the crisis a "catastrophe." Aid agencies cannot reach the most desperate.
Due to the fierceness of the storm and soil erosion, "lakes" have formed all over the rural areas, making roads impassable for aid trucks. Eyewitness reports state the aftermath is worse than Hurricane Jeanne of 2004.
Reports of the impact of natural disasters on the world's most neglected communities always read a bit ironic to me.
Haiti's failing infrastructure is well known. For over 25 years the US and the World Bank gave millions of dollars to dictators for infrastructure creation. Urban roads continued to crumble.
Rural roads remained unpaved. Yet in recent years, the world has withheld money from the democratically elected government to accomplish the same goal. Repeatedly, the Haitian government, community groups and human rights advocates stated that the any major storm would be catastrophic given years of neglect and de-funding coupled with soil erosion caused by deforestation.
Slow to act, the U.S. government has promised a mere $100,000 for relief from these hurricanes. While I hope that they will provide more emergency relief dollars and the planning and transport to reach the neediness, once again the long-term impact of the neglect of Haiti is not acknowledged.
Damage to Haiti's already inadequate food crops will only serve to further amplify the food crisis affecting millions across Haiti. Standing water will only serve to spread water borne infectious diseases. Unlike with Katrina, the displaced have nowhere to go. The U.S. government's policy to return fleeing Haitians to Haiti with little to no due process remains unchanged throughout these disasters.
The paradox of Gustav's appearance on our gulf shores was not lost among those fleeing three years ago from Katrina. Yet the entire diaspora is vulnerable to nature's wrath and humanity's neglect. While Gustav spared the Gulf Coast of the horrors we have experienced and can imagine, more storms are on the way. While many are skeptical of the infrastructure in place in the U.S. for such storms, we know that in countries like Haiti no such systems exist.
No doubt that each day that passes without assistance Haitians and other Caribbean people will suffer alone wondering if anyone will eventually come to help them. Many of them will not survive.
As we invest in our early warning systems and programs, the U.S. also must make investments in the infrastructures of our closest neighbors. Paving roads, planting trees, and sustainable economic development would have a significant impact on the impact of hurricanes in Haiti.
When we see fellow Americans suffering and desperate, it is difficult to turn away and yet we turn away from the suffering of our people only a couple hundred miles away from our shore.
Katrina and Rita illustrated that we can all be vulnerable to need and injustice. In the aftermath of Gustav, Hanna, and now with Ike and Josephine on the way, can Americans address the issues highlighted by natural disasters and demand action?
Nicole C. Lee is the Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum