In Haiti three days after the earthquake, the terrible reality of death and destruction settles upon the nation and the world.  The preliminary estimates of fatalities appear to be range between 45,000 and 50,000.  Three million Haitians, one-third of the countries population, appear severely impacted. Access to clean, uncontaminated water and food is increasingly difficult. The principal port is ruined and the one international airport is overwhelmed.  The U.S. and all others are truly in a race against time.

In his first major leadership challenge in the Americas, President Obama has launched an all-out, “whole of government,” effort to dispatch relief.  He has pledged $100 million in immediate aid.  A veritable armada of ships and aircrafts along with troops of the 82nd Airborne, the U.S. Marines, and civilian search and rescue teams are already on the ground or on the way.

The generous response of the American people especially given through cell phone donations and the transforming effects of social messaging networks are being fully demonstrated. Often maligned U.S. companies have been invited by the Obama Administration to assist with food and other stocks and will surely help.

The immediate response highlights the magnificent marriage between U.S. capability and compassion in the face of massive human catastrophe.

Yet, as the immediate help is dispatched, Washington policy makers must grapple with what comes next.  Several questions already loom large.

  • Who’s in charge in Haiti? The absence of any visible sign of Haitian authority is disturbing.  In the hundred of photographs and footage one cannot detect a single policeman, fireman, or government official. There is at this moment, as Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack admitted, “no functioning government in Haiti.” In the days ahead, authority and sovereignty issues will loom large as efforts are made to stand up a workable Haitian government and develop appropriate interfaces and lines of authority between it, the U.S., the United Nations and other donors.
  • Who will rebuild Haiti? While the U.S. is taking the lead in disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, it alone cannot rebuild Haiti. Wisely, former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega notes the U.S. must be careful about taking ownership of the Haiti situation.
  • Can Haiti be changed? From different angles, New York Times columnist David Brooks, the Washington Times, and others remind us of the deep-rooted historic, social and cultural factors that have kept Haiti poor and weak will not vanish overnight. As Brooks writes, referencing conservative thinker Samuel P. Huntington, “cultural change is hard, but cultures do change after major traumas. This earthquake is certainly a trauma. The only question is whether the outside world continues with the same old, same old.”

Rescuing Haiti will not be easy, but getting Haiti right this time around may be even harder.