Austin Bay

Economic fragility and its usual partners, political and economic corruption, are killers.

Natural disasters harm developed nations. When hurricanes strike the U.S. coast, losses are measured in billions of dollars. What harms the developed world and leaves scores or even hundreds dead, however, utterly overwhelms developing nations whose impoverished populations often survive at a level of bare subsistence.

Overwhelmed scarcely begins to describe Haiti's destructive January earthquake which left 230,000 to 250,000 people dead.

Ambassador Lewis Lucke directed U.S. relief efforts in Haiti. Last month, I had a chance to discuss the operation Lucke. In the world of aid operations, Lucke is a seasoned professional, having worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for almost three decades, including extensive experience in Haiti. He also served as U.S. ambassador to Swaziland.

Having worked in overseas disaster relief and recovery operations myself, I have great respect for leaders like Lucke who have the technical expertise to orchestrate logistic support, medical aid, search and rescue, and relief teams when communications are iffy and key local infrastructure (such as airfields and roads) are severely damaged.

The job of assessing the physical destruction and deploying relief teams to address immediate survival needs in a crisis is exacerbated by rampant fear, shock and misery. The heartbreaking video and photo imagery of Haiti's post-quake suffering testifies to the depth of human suffering Lucke and his teams faced.

"Inter-agency" interoperability is professional shorthand for coordinating capabilities of U.S. government agencies in a crisis. In the relief world, the term includes private and nongovernmental organizations. The goal is to get the best possible combination of skills and assets into the devastated area as quickly as possible.

The Obama administration gave USAID responsibility for directing the entire aid operation.

"In a terrible situation like the one Haiti faced, if the directing agency isn't USAID, who the heck is it going to be?" Lucke said. "The scale and magnitude of Haiti's disaster tested everyone. But USAID as the point of the spear in an international operation like this makes sense. Take our Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) as an example. They train to handle everything from food and water (distribution) to medical (aid), communications, logistics and military liaison."

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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