International aid workers know how to make relief work

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

A GROUP of people huddled together, escaping a disaster not of their making, lacking the basic necessities of life - food, water, sanitation. As time passes, their despair grows. They wave at passing helicopters, they beg those with access to the outside world - journalists, soldiers - looking for help.

The backdrop to such scenes is usually a hardscrabble bit of land in Africa or perhaps a tsunami-strewn beach in Asia, not an interstate highway overpass in one of the United States' major metropolitan areas.

For officials at Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, these scenes from New Orleans are particularly poignant and painful. They have seen such sights in other parts of the world and have acted to make sure that the suffering was alleviated, the sick were treated, the hungry fed, the dirty bathed. But they couldn't do that this time. CRS operates only in other countries, not in the United States. They could only watch.

As the despair on the ground grew throughout the week - matched by a lack of action from those in the government responsible for delivering relief - Michael Griffin, CRS' director of operations, says he kept having the same thought: "Let us at it."

Disasters like the one that hit New Orleans and Mississippi last week are not unique. They happen around the world with some regularity, the result of war, famine, flooding and earthquakes, as well as hurricanes.

And there is a rather large industry that deals with their human toll. Much of the work is under the umbrella of the United Nations - where the United States just sent new ambassador John R. Bolton with a portfolio calling for drastic reform.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) sets up camps to provide shelter for those displaced. In most parts of the world, UNHCR officials would love to have a structure like the Houston Astrodome, now home to about 15,000 of New Orleans' refugees - technically displaced people in the argot of relief because they have not left their country.

Mainly, the refugee agency settles for huge swaths of land, turning them into tent cities, many residents huddled under blue UNHCR tarpaulins.

The food they eat usually comes from the U.N. World Food Program which obtains and transports tons of food for the hungry.

Beneath the U.N. umbrella are the nongovernmental organizations, the private actors in the relief field who do much of the heavy lifting. CRS is one of the most important of these NGOs.

"It's nice to sit here in Baltimore - not sitting there in the heat and the wet and the stink - and say, `We could do better,'" says CRS President Ken Hackett. "But the fact is, some of us have been there and know that when you are in a situation like that, what it takes is getting mad and using your brains, and then you can do it.

"It does take some knowledge of what has worked and what hasn't worked."

For CRS, much of that knowledge has been put in a three-ring binder titled Emergency Preparedness and Response Handbook. It's a script for how to get ready for something like Hurricane Katrina and how to react after it hits - a script that CRS officials say was rarely followed last week.

"I'm not sure we can say what has gone wrong, but I can say what we try to do right," Hackett says.

"Take a place like Rwanda, where you knew trouble was afoot even before it hit in the genocide of 1994," he says. "You do an assessment of who can do what. So we knew what our role was. This can be done a priori. It's more than intuitive."

Hackett notes that the Philippines prepares for the inevitable typhoon, so the United States should be prepared for the inevitable hurricane.

"You get ready," he says. "You know what your assets are."

After you determine that, Hackett says, "You start empowering people to move. You can't centralize decision-making. People on the ground have to have the knowledge that they can make decisions, and make mistakes. You keep watching and refining actions. it's an ongoing process."

The apparent lack of such a process in the wake of Katrina makes it look as if those in charge thought a country as rich and developed as the United States would just absorb this impact with minimal intervention from relief agencies.

A half-million refugees is a big crisis anywhere in the world. For those on interstate highway overpasses in New Orleans, a bus to take them to a big field in northern Louisiana filled with blue UNHCR tents, with a CRS truck bringing food and medical supplies, would probably be a welcome sight.

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