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Media and Crisis Management

Haiti Earthquake and the Response Dilemma

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Haiti Earthquake and the Response DilemmaCrisis response

How frustrating for the United States and other nations to be stymied in heartfelt efforts to aid Haiti earthquake survivors in spite of a rapid response.  The post-apocalyptic ruins thwarted the most sophisticated relief and rescue for days.  No wonder, given the quake crushed Haiti’s core infrastructure and population center. Historically most deadly temblors strike rural areas leaving cities and governments intact to help.

Retired army Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, who bulldozed into New Orleans to save its residents after Hurricane Katrina had intriguing observations about the Haiti rescue snarl.  “Amateurs worry about tactics: professionals worry about logistics.” In other words, focus first on the fastest way to help victims. Don”t let the essential but time-consuming establishing of sophisticated command and control inhibit.  Unlike most observers who were horrified to watch mobs wrestle for supplies dropped from hovering helicopters, Honore applauded the initiative of the pilots.  As he saw it, chaos and expedience were a price worth paying to deliver water and food to people.   Forget niceties, save lives.  Coincidentally that was the attitude the general and chopper pilots demonstrated in New Orleans, often plucking victims from rooftops ad hoc.

Lt. Gen. Honore had his thoughts, the non-profit Partners in Health distributed a list of needs in Haiti that stressed command and control as well as logistics.  These were the needs in priority order. Notice that victims aren’t addressed until step four.

  1. Reopen the airport.
  2. Repair cellphone communication systems.
  3. Clear main roads of debris.
  4. Send in rescue teams.
  5. Set up protected shelters… with food, water, and basic (medical) services.
  6. Procure, distribute water.
  7. Procure, distribute… food.
  8. Procure, distribute medical/surgical kits, IV fluids at mobile clinics.
  9. Increase medical (capacity).
  10. Dispose of all bodies.

The General and the Partners in Health are both correct.  First responders go toward victims rapidly, organizational demands be damned.

Simultaneously, commanders create an efficient system to provide the most aid to the most people for the long term.

I found item 2 of the list particularly instructive. With tens of thousands dead and thousands more dying, communications was the second greatest priority.  On a broad scale, emergency personnel and supplies are useless when no one can communicate where they should go.

The Haiti earthquake challenges the best crisis management.  It magnifies the inherent uncertainty and the need to adapt.  For one, CNN physician reporter Sanjay Gupta met that need when he saw doctors ordered to leave a tent hospital for security reasons.  Gupta remained all night to single-handedly treat patients until doctors returned.

An especially maddening disaster for victims and their would-be saviors.

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