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.
The chief rolled down the window and stated his business. The officer said, "This is Jefferson Parish," and placed his hand on his weapon. The fire official said, “Thank you,” rolled up his window and backed up to take the longer way back to downtown New Orleans.
5. Watch the guys with the briefcases, too. Billions were spent on recovery and reconstruction, not all of it well. Remember those blue tarps that were atop all the houses in Louisiana as temporary fixes for roof damage after Katrina? A short time later, the Washington Post reported that there were five, sometimes six layers of contractors who got paid: "At the bottom tier is a Spanish-speaking crew earning less than 10 cents for every square foot of blue tarp installed. At the top, the prime contractor bills the government 15 times as much for the same job."
6. The will to live is strong. In New Orleans, Jemal Foster came back from 18 months in Iraq, surrounded by death and destruction, to find his home in ruins. Foster had lost 54 pounds during the tour, and his mental state took an even larger beating. So had his hometown. The clubs he visited had burned. His home was gutted. His children’s school was under water. But still, he found a reason to smile: At his aunt’s house nearby, there was no water damage. Around back, he found the 100-quart pot he’d purchased to boil seafood, a small piece of solace. He smiled, saying, "At least I got my crawfish pot."
7. Our attention span is short. Almost as soon as the water receded, most of the cameras left and Katrina became as much about politics as rebuilding. But even all this time later, New Orleans is still recovering. Sure, the French Quarter feels the same to the casual visitor. But the neighborhoods, the ones where my friends lived, the ones with the small mom-and-pop joints, are not the same. The uprooted who have been unwilling—or unable—to return home still curse Katrina’s name.
The city’s soul is still in recovery, too.
Haiti has exponentially more dead to bury, more institutions and families to heal. The nation, and its people, will need the world’s help … for a very long time.
Robert E. Pierre is an editor at the Washington Post and co-author of A Day Late and A Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama's 'Post-Racial' America released this month by John Wiley and Sons.