Jamaica & Responding to the Haitian Earthquake Crisis

Two days into the aftermath of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti and I’m already chaffing at what seems to be further evidence of lack of leadership – particularly among Caribbean leaders. I really hope that it’s more the word about their collaborative efforts being released than lack of any effort at all. In any event, here are my thoughts on what is being done and what should done.

Logistics and Getting relief aid to the People Who Need It
To date, a large number of countries have either pledged money to help with the relief effort, or have sent personnel and items to Haiti, or both. The response has been heartwarming and, to a point, has restored my faith in our capacity to care for each other. However, two days into the crisis and it seems as if the relief aid, or not a sufficient amount, is getting to the injured. The U.S. military has taken charge of the Port-au-Prince airport but that’s it…the plan or even a shade of a plan to get things going is gone. I think that this is partially due to the massive losses suffered by Doctors Without Borders, the U.N., and Haitian Catholic Church – the actual know how of maneuvering on the ground in Haiti is either missing, injured, overwhelmed or dead. But there are others among us who can figure this out and should get to it – soon.

It seems to me that as soon as news about the magnitude and damage caused by the quake began to trickle out, either the Dominican Republic or Jamaica (likely in conjunction with the U.S. and the U.N.) should have begun creating a plan of action and a logistical command center. Though Cuba is also a close neighbour of Haiti, its relationship with the U.S., who was always going to be the principal donor and leader of efforts along with the U.N., precludes it from having a more active role. The Dominican Republic (DR) and Jamaica, rather, both enjoy reasonably good relations with the U.S. government and most other governments in the world likely to respond. Immediately, as Haiti’s closest CARICOM neighbour Jamaica and the rest of CARICOM along with the Haitian government should have begun setting up a logistical plan if not a logistical command center. The Dominican Republic, because of its land connection to Haiti, already has the “burden” of directing and managing significant use of its position and border as an overland route into Haiti. However, from my understanding the terrain is rough so that could hamper efforts.

Jamaica, however, is close enough so that it could be used a base either for the Haitian Government or for relief efforts. Its Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) has at least some expertise in responding to crises – including earthquakes. Stat there. Start coming up with a workable plan that can be offered to aid agencies…there needs to be some leadership taken in how supplies and people get to the Haitians who need it…as it stands, everything is moving like molasses or at a stand still. Free up, as Capleton would say.

Start figuring out if and how planes bearing relief aid can land. If not then, then by now there should be some inquiry into whether some incoming and even outgoing tourist/commercial flights could be diverted to the Sangster Int’l Airport (SIA) in MoBay so that the Norman Manley Int’l Airport (NMIA) in Kingston could be used as an relief aid reception point or refueling station or both. Yes, NMIA has one runway like the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti but our airport is still standing and is accustomed to accommodating large numbers of flights because of Jamaica’s tourism industry. Even better, is that coupled with the winter tourist season that directs most flights to MoBay, the influx of Jamaicans returning home to visit relatives has lessened with the resumption of school and work in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. (i.e. the countries in which most overseas Jamaicans live). NMIA can be freed up and I have to yet think of or be told a compelling reason why it shouldn’t be. There are also the Tinson Pen Aerodrome (Kingston) and the Boscobel airport (St. Mary). Yes, they’re small but not useless!! Today it became crystal clear that Haiti’s lone and damaged airport was incapable of handling the large influx of well-meaning relief aid now there or just arriving. I’m no pilot or aviation expert but why can’t planes arrive in Haiti, unload, and then take off for refueling either at the NMIA or the DR’s airport.

(A note on Gauntanamo Bay in Cuba: it is also close to Haiti and undoubtedly well-equipped but because of its U.S. control and the individuals being housed there it seems unlikely that the U.S. would authorize a massive influx of non-security cleared planes and personnel to land there. Some seriously injured Americans were taken to the hospital there but frankly I don’t see the same being done for injured Haitians or others…and I don’t blame the U.S. if it does in fact refuse to treat injured non-Americans there. Too many security considerations and hurdles when, to my mind, there are several other feasible alternatives available. As I think about, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched for some injured to be treated in Cuba, which is renowned for its excellent medical staff…but again, politics is likely to intrude and muck up an already complicated and delicate situation.)

Further, Jamaica is gifted with the world’s 7th largest natural harbour. We have a God-given advantage for handling ships. With the damage to Port-au-Prince’s port facilities and the roads leading to it, why can’t Kingston Harbour be used as, at least, a stopping or unloading point for relief aid or the hospital ship? We also have a fairly new and under-used Marina in Port Antonio, Portland…don’t tell me that it was built only to handle cruise ship dockings and is so woefully unable to accommodate as-large ships with well-needed supplies. Aren’t there facilities on the Kingston Wharf and at the Marina that could house relief aid until it’s needed in Haiti? Doesn’t the Kingston Wharf have sophisticated equipment with which to offload and handle these items? It would then be a relatively simple matter to release relief aid as needed to Haiti once properly stored. Security can be provided not only by the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF – which has already sent or is sending 150 soldiers to Haiti to support security initiatives there) as well as U.N.-branded personnel or even the soldiers of other countries who have been sent to assist in the crisis. Non-Jamaican military/security could be restricted to “base” or some other U.N./crisis/peacekeeping rule must be in place to address this kind of thing.

And please don’t think I’m saying that Jamaica is doing nothing. The JDF contingent, along with contingents of medical and health personnel, plus the truly heartfelt donations and efforts of Jamaican corporations and “ordinary” Jamaicans is NOTHING to sneeze at.

Now if only the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) would haul itself up from whatever rock it’s under and do its job and lead in this crisis. Instead Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Bruce Golding and the Opposition Leader, Portia Simpson, saw fit to make a trip to Haiti to “assess” the situation. What pray tell are they assessing? In fact, are they even qualified to assess? Shouldn’t a senior-level employee or even the head of the ODPEM have been sent to assess, since that’s there his/her expertise lies? I find it hard to believe that CARICOM needed a head of state to be on the ground…and then jet off again to another meeting to report. Start getting other Caribbean government officials involved and on the ground in Jamaica, instead of going to them. Listen, didn’t they see the shock of Rene Preval? Couldn’t his assessment also be trusted? Bruce and Portia are supposedly skilled at marshalling resources and creating policy and leading people…so stay in Jamaica and do just that. Can’t be a senior member of CARICOM, Haiti’s neighbour, large economy with many resources (yes, even its current state of confusion) and NOT get things done in this crisis. Come up with a plan – using the ODPEM’s own existing framework as a basis. I could go off on their idiocy, but I won’t. Neither deserves the space or time any more. What matters now that is the pressure is put on them to act, and act appropriately.

How can CARICOM + the U.N. + the U.S. help the Haitian government to restore some semblance of order and control over the situation? What space is there to use? Where can they set up so that they can get communication going so that its able to reach out for and respond to offers of relief aid, as well as start a concerted effort to identify or locate the injured or dead? Given Haiti’s heartbreaking history the urge or instinct seems to be an every man for himself sort of thing. This is despite the strides the Haitian government had been making before the earthquake struck. Why isn’t everything humanly possible being done to help them grab on to those tenuous strides, and to let their population know that yes things are really quite awful now but the Haitian Government is still operational and getting things done as best possible – we are here, have trust and faith in our ability to lead even this trying time? In fact, this need for the Haitian Government to hold on to its legitimacy is exactly why a logistical command center – housing both relief and government functions is necessary. That legitimacy is going to be a critical part of Haiti’s resurrection from this rubble. Of course such a center would also mean that relief relief aid (from Jamaica and elsewhere) could – hopefully – be secured, tracked, and then released when needed. Important dual purposes and the opportunity to fulfill them is slipping away…

Planning for an Influx of Haitian Refugees to Jamaica
The other and obvious part of this tragedy is that many Haitians – perhaps as many as 3 million – have been affected and will need places to live. Of course the north of Haiti is viable but with the massive deforestation and lingering colonial tendency to pack everything into one main city on the coast, options for relocating Haitians are slim. There is also the psychological trauma of the quake – the experience itself, losing family, friends, loved ones, neighbours, priests and confidants, and yes the precious little material things one may have accumulated – and the long-standing and repeated natural and man-made disasters to hit Haiti, particularly within the last 10 years. All of this will leave many with one option – to flee.

(Leave aside the idea that many Haitians – especially children and the elderly – may have to be resettled in other countries.)

The countries most likely to cope with the brunt of that exodus are the DR, Cuba, Jamaica, and the U.S. (particularly South Florida). I don’t even have to guess that the U.S. Coast Guard is already patrolling its waters or that DR authorities are patrolling and shoring up its border. Ditto for Cuba – especially since Guantanamo is the closest spot. Heck, even Antigua – waaay over “there” – is bracing for an influx. Jamaica? *crickets*

Or maybe Jamaica’s darling media isn’t covering this issue. Except of course to report the “warning” statement of Opposition Member Dr. Peter Phillips. Hmmm *shelving my rant*

So here are my thoughts on how to prep for the influx. It is Jamaica’s eastern parishes that will get most Haitians, I think: St. Thomas, Portland, St. Mary, and even Kingston & St. Andrew. We’ve had them before – back in 1994 comes to mind – so we know they can get there! But a friend, Caro, reminded me that the volcano crisis in Montserrat led us to welcome Montserratians with open arms. Possibly an even worse crisis now, except that I don’t think the Montserratians came by boat…

Jamaica needs to:

  • start patrolling the waters off the eastern parishes not only to see who comes by but also for safety reasons – boats bearing refugees at a time like this likely won’t be the most water-ready;
  • start setting up shelter(s) – or at least identify and get ready to establish – and here again the ODPEM already knows where can be used because Jamaica uses shelters when hurricanes strike and used facilities when last there was an influx of Haitian refugees; and
  • identify and alert personnel who will be needed to handle these people – administrative (to start keeping a record of people by seeing what identification etc… they have and pass along to other countries where anxious family members may be; also set up guidelines for how the facility will be run to ensure no abuse and optimal safe conditions), military/security (to protect them but frankly also to keep them in one place until decisions are made on their status), government and legal (to start assessing what their legal status will be, which affect their ability to stay in Jamaica if even on an long-term temporary basis), medical and health (I expect those who arrive to be ill from the journey, likely injured from the quake, and in shock or otherwise psychologically harmed by either experience), other support (here Food for the Poor, Jamaica-based U.N. staff, Catholic priests and nuns, and even sports organizations would be key to providing emotional and even day-to-day support for the facility);
  • seek help/commitment from corporate entities across the Caribbean (many companies in Jamaica and the Caribbean have already pledged relief aid or money but running whatever facility will take more than just personnel – food, clothing, communication are all important…Grace Kennedy, D&G, MegaMart, PriceMart, Butterkist, etc… all sell things that these refugees will need and their support would ease the burdens on the GOJ…start asking and getting);
  • get help, input, and expertise from other Caribbean and regional governments (seriously, T&T has oil to run the power station/equipment of the shelter/refugee facility, U.S., U.N., China, India, Britain, Canada, and Germany have substantial embassies, consulates, and high commission, and their attached personnel available with expertise or ability to support and get things directly from their home countries, and the Caribbean is home to vast human resources from which suitably capable people could be drawn to address this situation…Jamaica need not bear all the burden alone…seriously, if ever there was an opening for Caribbean unity

Most important, these people must be treated with care and compassion. Undoubtedly many in Jamaica are not much better off than those in Haiti but Jamaicans still have the resources and I think the willingness to help as much as possible.

I really hope that someone “in the know” in Jamaica is thinking about and acting on these issues. Time is ticking away and many are holding on expecting the international community to act and save them. It seems cruel to me that they should suffer and die – that we should fail them – because of a failure to think things through and corral our resources.

4 Responses to “Jamaica & Responding to the Haitian Earthquake Crisis”
  1. idleyute says:

    Wow Renée, well thought out. And i think it's laughable how much faith you have in any jamaicans to handle crisis. One non fatal plane crash and everyone says it took forever to even get aid out there.

  2. AliceClare says:

    Thanks for the comment.And I don't know if I'd call it laughable but yes, it is not for the weak-willed or soft-stomached. I guess I will be one of the last to believe that Jamaicans – especially leadership – cannot do better than the current state of things.

  3. Shumpy says:

    As you can see you were a bit ahead of the curve. A day or so later I saw reports of the US taking over the Haitian airport and directing the aid plan. It would have been nice if the CARICOM could have played a major (not necessarily lead) role. I think if not the management capabilities, we def have some facilities we could offer (such as airport and docking space)

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  1. […] of January 12, 2010.  Soon after the EQ I blogged about Haiti – what I thought the Caribbean response should be (or should have been) and on what I thought the large presidential palace meant to and […]

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