edited and updated on 1/21/10

The earthquake in Haiti makes anyone who has ever dealt with logistics pause and contemplate the enormity of the task ahead.  Here’s some thoughts about what’s going on:

*Haiti is on an island.  The main port is wrecked,  limiting the access for container ships that contain supplies.  Repairing the port and the cranes that help unload supplies is a priority, but all of the repairs and replacements will depend on getting those itmes off island.  In the meantime, this means supplies must be taken in by smaller boats, if possible, eating up already limited fuel supplies that still exist.

*There is one main airport with one runway.  This means getting planes in and out, those transporting both people and supplies, is tricky and limited.  Planes carry much less than could get in and out by ship, but as we already mentioned, the ability to get a working port functioning is going to be difficult.

* They estimate over 1.5 million people are homeless.  Some perspective on this number- you could fill Yankee Stadium, to Capacity, Standing room only, Nineteen times to reach 1.5 million- each and every one of those people without access to a bank, without access to any of their belongings, clean clothes, food or water.

*Even if the distribution system is gearing up and now feeding over 100,000 people a day, that’s only 1 in 15 of the people who need to be fed and have access to safe food and water.  And those are the people who know where to go to get food and water- not those who are currently injured, disabled and in need of medical help.

*While NPR reported this morning the US Military units from the 82nd Airborne are now serving 50 meals a minute, if you do the math, this means if they serve at this rate, 24 hours a day, they are serving 72,000 meals a day.  That’s a lot of food, to be sure.  But with 1.5 million people homeless, this is still less than one meal a day for only one out of every 16 or so people.  It’s fantastic and quite an achievement, but the enormity of the overall problem is simply staggering.  We want the Haitians to be able to help the aid workers in dealing with this crisis, but it’s going to be hard when people are dealing with a food and water crisis that’s hard for us to really imagine and wrap our minds around.  How long and how hard could you work if you only ate once, maybe every day, maybe not at all?

*Each and every person we add to the island to help- doctors, nurses, rescuers, engineers- each of those folks also need food, water and shelter in order to help the others.  Each reporter , the same thing.

* A large amount of the communication infrastructure is gone.  People aren’t in their homes with electricity and TVs to find out about what to do or where to go.  How do you let everyone know what to do?  We’re assuming here that there’s adequate electricity available or a way to spread information effectively around, including helping people find their families or contact relatives out of the Country.  But batteries run out, so without power or generators, you can’t even run radios to let people know where to get food and supplies that are being delivered.

*There are only 2 roads leading to Haiti from the Dominican Republic on the other side of the Island.  Refugees are a problem.  The limited roads and distance between the ports in the Dominican Republic and those in Haiti are about 250 miles, far enough to further complicate relief efforts, and add to the fuel for delivery vehicles problem.

*People have limited access to fresh water- this means getting desalinization plants up and running quickly to supply water to folks is absolutely necessary.  This is a time consuming process- it’s not “instant on”  and of course, requires more people to operate the equipment, who all also need to be fed.  Water will also have to be rationed- first, to sustain people and cook with, even before we can even think of providing adequate facilities for washing, bathing, and of course, sanitation.

*Without adequate food, water, and housing, disease will take hold, not only from the need to cope with those who have died, but from lack of adequate sanitation for the living.

*Think of the human waste needs alone for a stadium full of people.  Think of what those restrooms look like and smell like after a big game.  Multiply it by 20.  On a daily basis, there’s not only a need for food, but to deal with the inevitable waste from lots of people in a small area.  It’s not like it’s easy to put a porta-potty on every street corner- and then where do you dump the waste, when no one has a home, plumbing and facilities to use?

*Many people who were key to making things happen in the Government and aid agencies were also killed, injured, had homes destroyed, lost family members, and more.  They themselves are trying their best to martial whatever assets they can find to help the people.

*Many people are injured and many people are facing amputations, and perhaps permanent disability following the Quake.  This means during reconstruction, there will be a lot more people needing things like wheelchair ramps, making it necessary to consider whether you will need to reconstruct Haiti with an eye towards access like we have here under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The displaced people –

-can’t go to a bank to get their money.  No bankers are at work, or tellers- let’s assume the vault is even open and not buried- no one is refilling the ATM machine, for sure. This means no money to buy your own supplies and feed your family, if you could find a shop with any supplies, at any price.

-Can’t go to the store to buy anything, assuming you have money.  The store has been destroyed, and those folks are not at work, and if there were any usable supplies, by now, anything salvageable is gone.  The flow of goods in and out of a city has come to a full stop, other than relief supplies.  But what will happen next?  How and when will we be able to transition people back into some sort of normal after a tragedy of this magnitude?

– The displaced have  no where to bathe or take care of one’s self.  Adequate sanitation, the ability to shower, dress, wash clothes, etc. is limited.  They are surrounded by sea water.  Assuming you can get fresh water available, they need to triage the importance of giving people water to survive- drink and food, and then to sanitation needs to prevent outbreaks of disease and further health issues.  Think what would happen and how you would feel if you went over a week without clean clothes, without being able to bathe, without use of a regular bathroom. Can food borne illness and disease be far behind?  Plus any illness will be easily spread- there’s nowhere to isolate the ill.

-The displaced can’t go to work.  Work isn’t there anymore, more than likely.  This means people need to be organized in order to have something to do to help themselves and help others, assuming you can get people and their skills lined up, and can feed them so they are able to work.  When you have no food, water or shelter, work and helping others can seem like a big chore, when you can’t even help yourself.  Think about leaving your family on the street while you try to go to work, having been on the Streets yourself, with no way to wash, to clothes to change into, and how difficult that would be, not knowing where they would be at the end of the day, or if they will be able to find food to survive without your help.  Somehow, going to a job or factory will pale by comparison.

This means that it does take very little to make emotions run raw.   The riots are perhaps a natural reaction to people struggling in a Darwinian way, to survive any way they can.  It takes very little to take stressed people and tip the situation over into one where they feel they need to take things into their own hands, and they see very little that others are managing to do to help them.  Again, aid workers are doing the very best they can, with a problem of these dimensions- but even if they are feeding 250,000 once a day, or 500,000 for that matter, it leaves one million with nothing still, and is a long way away from even two square meals a day, let alone the three most of us are used to.

It’s a problem that makes you wish it were possible to take everyone off the island, make the roads passable, set up tents and areas where people could go, and then let them back on the island,  where temporary villages and housing, with adequate sanitation and infrastructure to serve meals and provide medical treatment were available, like temporary Red Cross shelters we set up in different towns after Hurricane Katrina.

In the meantime, they have obstacles on a scale we find hard to imagine.  Hurricane Katrina was bad, but people could still leave and go elsewhere in the Country.  They could be moved to different towns and shelters by vehicles, and they were not isolated on an island with minimum supplies available.  Plus, with the water and flooding, at least some infrastructure remained in tact.  In Haiti, there’s very little left in the capital to house and care for the people, and we don’t even have a good picture of what’s going on in the towns and buildings on other parts of the island.

So for anyone who wonders why things are so bad, the isolation of living on an Island is part of the problem. Building materials need to be shipped in.  There’s no structures and businesses left to manufacture what they might need locally, or minimal, if they are functional.  Even if the businesses and equipment are there, are the workers able to come to work, if they are still alive?  How do you let them know you are open for business? How do you provide them with what they need when you have no place to live yourself?

The domino effect of the destruction seems almost endless.

Please consider making a donation to the Red Cross and other emergency relief organizations to help make their mission possible.  Your money can help, and eventually you can help in other ways as well.  Right now, there’s an enormity of need and we need to make sure everyone doing the best possible to help people survive are in charge and not victims of non-stop critique.  This is a job with endless moving parts, and I admire everyone involved in the effort.  It’s a task of daunting proportions.  It’s havoc and a problem that as we ramp up relief, it can’t be fast enough to save everyone who survived the quake.

The secondary problems with health, permanent disability, reconstructing housing, and then slowly infrastructure, business and something resembling a regular life will take a very long time.  And I hope we don’t suffer from caring fatigue long before we help make a dent in this huge problem.