Haiti: Seven Lessons From Katrina

There’s a lot that Haiti can learn from Katrina’s atrocities. Let’s not make the same mistakes twice.

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The images out of Haiti are haunting and horrifying: the bodies, the despair, the endless devastation, the desperate scramble for food and water. Watching this devastation from afar reminds me of being sent back home to Louisiana to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Recovery in the initial days was difficult to imagine. But distance provides us some lessons:

1. Be wary of rumors. People were so afraid of what they heard before arriving that, for those rushing in, security became more important than just getting there fast. Reports of mass rapes and homicides—later retracted—were spread by police and elected officials, whose communications were destroyed by the storm and eventual flood. Maj. Ed Bush of the Louisiana National Guard, was stationed at the Superdome, the alleged site of many atrocities. He said, "People would hear something on the radio and come and say that people were getting raped in the bathroom or someone had been murdered … I would tell them if there were bodies, my guys would find it. Everybody heard; nobody saw."

2. Haiti is a place, not a disaster. It has a history. Just as in New Orleans, that history can’t be accurately conveyed by a few compelling pictures and stories told by those who parachute in. Like the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, there’s a reason why the shantytowns got that way. Delve deeper to find out how.

3. Don’t scapegoat those suffering. During Katrina, there were rogues who stole televisions and jewelry and cars. Others broke into closed stores and—some would say understandably—took all the food, candy, cigarettes and liquor. In Haiti, there have been flashes of anger and violence over food. But can any of us know how we would react if we hadn’t eaten in days? If our children hadn’t eaten in days? I’ve still got a loop playing in my head of the people stealing electronics from the Wal-Mart near the convention center during Katrina. But I also remember, after everyone had been evacuated, walking around the city and seeing stores wide open with everything on their shelves—except for the food.

4. Watch the people with the guns. There is absolutely a need for security when the government has lost its ability to function, as it did briefly in New Orleans, and more recently, in Port-au-Prince. And, yes, plenty of law enforcement officials did a yeoman’s job of trying to maintain order. But also remember in Gretna, La., a suburb of 17,500 across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans, officials fired a warning shot to keep 5,000 people from walking across a bridge connecting the two communities. Here is a personal story: I was riding with a deputy fire department chief—in full uniform and an official vehicle—and we were taking a short cut through Gretna back to New Orleans. A police cruiser blocked the road.

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