What lessons should Americans take away from the 2010 Haiti disaster?

Glenn Reynolds says one of the lessons Americans should take away from the earthquake in Haiti is the imperative of self-reliance: "If you're at the scene of a major disaster, it may be a long time before outside help arrives. But one person is sure to be there: you. And nobody cares more about helping you and your family in time of disaster than, well, you. So it makes sense for you to be prepared to take care of yourself—and look out for your neighbors—for some time afterward."


  1. That’s why aid organizations such as the Red Cross recommend that everyone have emergency supplies to cover at least the first 72 hours following a disaster. It typically takes that long at minimum before relief efforts can get underway.

  2. or just buy a gun, that way you can procure all kinds of emergency supplies from the community at no expense.

    gotta think with your wallet in this economy!

    1. No way Hawley. Wrong reason for having a gun. It’s a smart idea to be able to defend oneself, but looting is wrong. Looting with a gun only makes it worse.

      Have an emergency plan. Keep nonperishable food, a first aid kit, tarps, sleeping bags, water purification, etc. A gun’s for protecting what you already have, not for forcibly taking more once the S hits the F.

    2. I agree with everything that Ted8305 said and would only add this: there are some pretty gruesome photos coming out of Haiti showing what happens to looters. Something involving crowds armed with metal pipes…

  3. Same one we should have taken from New Orleans, Indonesia, Turkey, or every other disaster: that help will be slow in coming, and even faster in leaving, and once the media has moved on to the next crisis of the century of the week, you’re back on your own, and being forgotten again.

  4. Off-topic, but I really hate this use of “well”:

    “And nobody cares more about helping you and your family in time of disaster than, well, you.”

    I wish that cutesy faux-stumble would go *away*.

  5. After taking first aid classes, and caching first aid supplies,I think that one of the best things you can do to prepare for a disaster of this scale is to know your neighbors and what you can expect from them for support or if you should expect to go it on your own – as someone mentioned above, you will be without any outside help for a while.

  6. That article is interesting. It makes me realize that I’m in the small minority, being a guy who is willing to try to fix just about anything (or die trying). I just assume that I can do it, and it usually works out well. I thank my father for imparting in me the confidence to try.

    Speaking of emergency water, my wife and I have a trailer we bring to Burning Man every year that has a solar-powered greywater processing system in it. That should help out a bit. Making dirty water clean is just about the most important thing to be able to do in an emergency.

  7. Well I’d point out that in the US we only have ourselves to rely on…

    Really. Did any other country seriously step up and help us with Katrina, or any other major disaster?

    But I guess since we are the best nation in the world and all we have to help everyone else…

    (Seems like to me it’s along the same lines as a billionaire helping you out if your house burned down.)

    On the token of this article: Everyone should know how to live at least a week with what they have right now. Build a fire, where to find water, shelter (if there is any), potential stores to raid for supplies (only if needed). And realistically in this country a gun might not be a bad thing.

    1. Why, yes, they do. Most developed nations cannot offer a lot to other first world nations when they are far apart, save specialist teams, though. And you sure as hell wouldn’t have appreciated expert advice on how to implement a national health care system-

      Besides that, American obviously neither needed or wanted help, as (e.g.) British and German emergency rations – the same stuff American soldiers in Europe and Americans eat – had been sent back. “Could carry mad cow desease” … right. We also opened our stategic oil reserves to help with the shortage.

      Personally, I don’t really give a damn – save meteoric impact, nuclear war or perhaps really big Earthquakes or Mt, Vesuvius exploding, both Europe and the USA can can help themselves these days and sending a couple of tons of foodstuff is only s well-meant gesture.

      However, turing those down is a gesture of its own and the signal was “We are Number One! Rah! We don’t need anyone!” (Besides, it would make Bush and FEMA look bad, when New Orleans citizen would get food from far away.)

    2. “bcsizemo” wrote: “Well I’d point out that in the US we only have ourselves to rely on… Really. Did any other country seriously step up and help us with Katrina, or any other major disaster? But I guess since we are the best nation in the world and all we have to help everyone else… (Seems like to me it’s along the same lines as a billionaire helping you out if your house burned down.)”

      etc. etc. etc.

      Well, “bcsizemo”, I’d like to point out that a whole lot of CANADIANS turned out to give N’awlins residents a hand — indeed, a Vancouver firefighting/rescue team and some RCMP personnel from Ontario got there long BEFORE anybody from FEMA ever did — that fact made CNN national news!

      So, as far as “what lessons should Americans take away from the 2010 Haiti disaster?”, I’d have to say: DON’T let George W. Bush be in charge of your disaster response team, as Obama appointed him in Haiti, and as he ultimately was during Hurricane Katrina. The man obviously couldn’t get a freaking cat out of a tree, let alone handle something of this magnitude.

      Oh, and as far as “…or any other major disaster?” goes, you might not be aware, but we Canadians send firefighting teams to help out almost *every year* when you have your big annual conflagrations in California. Nice to see that our help is appreciated.

  8. My favorite point from the article:

    “Still, we’re not asking that people think of disaster preparedness in terms of acquiring stuff. Having the right gear after a disaster is important, of course, but you should also think in terms of acquiring skills.”

  9. Fueled by ignorance and ingratitude bcsizemo ranted:
    “Did any other country seriously step up and help us with Katrina, or any other major disaster?”

    Yea. They did. They always do. We get rescue and emergency teams from around the world in big disasters and even supplies and help that are meant more as gestures because we don’t really need them.

    We, and other wealthy nations, don’t tend to really need much other than certain hyper-specialists like urban rubble rescue teams because we have government agencies that do most of the joband even when they aren’t working very well like in New Orleans they still tend to work as well as people who have to fly around the world to help and we have a big country that has never been very broadly affected by a disaster but other countries do give us help that we need and even give us help that we don’t need just to be kind.

  10. Anonymous 15 – interesting article. I remember some of the pledges, but had never seen a complete list. One correction of your comment from the article: of $854 million pledged, only $40 million was ever used. Most of the pledged amount was in oil, which we never collected. Free oil? How could we pass that up?

  11. What about the lesson that you shouldn’t impoverish your neighbours, impose economy destroying embargos, force them into asymmetric trade agreements, perpetuate anti-competitive agricultural policies, support slavery in their borders whether in cane field or sweatshop, lure them into destructive debt-cycles, impose Structural Readjustments that serve your wealthiest and end up destroying your own employment, depose their leaders, support their violent and anti-democratic dictators, arm their tyrants’ armies and train their torture squads?

    No? Didn’t think so.

    1. Hell yes, omnivore. Another lesson to take from this is that the governments and societies *as they are now organized* in Haiti, or in the US during Katrina, generally leave people to pull themselves up by their own compound-fractured bootstraps. It is not a foregone conclusion that our govt or society needs to stay this way.

      I just heard Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now talking about the huge stockpiles of fresh water stored relatively close to Haiti in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 9000 Marines are stationed. And yet they said the first ship to arrive with relief supplies was from Japan.

      1. I a ship with relief supplies from Japan arrived first, then it was already near there and not outfitted for the task.

        1. I was way off on the details (a Chinese plane full of rescue workers, not a Japanese ship full of relief supplies), but the real events bear out my point:

          “At 2 a.m. on Jan. 14, about 32 hours after the quake, a plane landed in Port-au-Prince with a search and rescue team from China — which had its own earthquake catastrophe just two years ago. The plane had left China within hours of hearing of Haiti’s urgent need and flew halfway around the world.'”

          China can send a search and rescue team from 32 hours away, but the US can’t spare anything from its massive stockpile of personnel or supplies from a nearby island because we’re too busy guarding Bin Laden’s driver. (Or maybe the soldiers are needed to prevent CIA from interrogating more prisoners to death?)

          1. Sorry, globalresearch.ca was not a site I had read before, just the first thing that gave details about when Chinese search and rescue had arrived. Let me try again from more credible sources:

            “The Chinese rescue team has searched some 30 buildings and retrieved 15 bodies of quake victims after they arrived at Port-Au-Prince two days after the quake.”
            Official press agency of the People’s Republic of China

            CNN.com repeats similar claims from Xinhua, for what that’s worth:
            Jan 15. “6:42 a.m. — A 60-member rescue team with three sniffer dogs arrived from China on Thursday, the official news agency Xinhua reported. Taiwan also sent a team of 23 rescuers and two dogs late Wednesday, according to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

            From Americas Program, Center for International Policy:
            “In countries all over the world, search and rescue teams were ready to leave for Haiti within 12 hours of the disaster. Only a few were able to arrive without fatal delays, mainly teams — like those from Venezuela, Iceland, and China — that managed to land while Haitian staff still retained control of their airport.”

  12. What really gets me is the number of people who live in places that are prone to natural disasters, and choose to keep living there. There are regions that flood almost every bloody year (eg. the red river) and the people keep coming right back, and getting tons of government money to rebuild each and every time.

    1. What really gets me is the number of people who live in places that are prone to natural disasters, and choose to keep living there.

      I’d be fascinated to see a map of those fabled regions that don’t have earthquakes or hurricanes or tornadoes or tsunamis or grass fires or blizzards or floods or mudslides or plagues of locusts. Even if there are such places, I’m pretty sure that they don’t have any available water.

      Where exactly do you expect people to live? Narnia?

    2. Actually I just watched an interesting doco from BBC, called How Earth Made Us – 1. Deep Earth. It stressed that throughout thousands of years, many places were settled close to fault lines because earthquakes and other movements are what caused metals to appear in great quantities in the ground. So the cost of rebuilding a city after an earthquake, even though it would cost a lot, would be outweighed by the benefits of mining and using the metal over several years between natural disasters.
      Hence why the land in Australia is so poor, there has been no volcanic activity to renew the land in thousands and thousands of years, due to the stability of its location.

  13. I don’t really see how this is necessarily a good lesson to take from Haiti. I mean, the issue isn’t that Haitians are just a bunch of ill-prepared jerks who lacked the foresight to stock up on flashlight batteries and luna bars. Haiti is such a disaster in the aftermath of the earthquake because it was a disaster BEFORE the earthquake. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world – many Haitians barely have enough to get by every day, let alone the ability to stock up on non-perishables and emergency supplies.

    1. @the opoponax, I don’t think that was Glenn’s intent here. But the fact that aid never gets there fast enough, wherever “There” is — that’s something to remember even when you live in a privileged, wealthy country like the US. Disasters happen here, too.

      The (mostly) extremely poor citizens of Haiti have phenomenally fewer economic options. The idea of disaster preparedness in such a place is incongruous when you’re talking about a population that suffers from malnutrition and lack of many first-world basics. Nobody’s chastising them for not stocking up on MREs and 9-volt batteries.

  14. I learned that we are WAY faster to help strangers than we are to help our own. And more generously too.

  15. Personally, I find it more than a little disturbing that you are citing the odious Glenn Reynolds. Omnivore nailed it pretty clearly. All points that I would expect Reynolds to deny in his patented smarmy,passive aggressive style.

  16. Something I would love to see:

    A cheap newsprint booklet, available in many languages, printed up by FEMA and local agencies and sent to EVERYBODY.

    It would be 1/3 “how to prepare,” 1/3 “what to do in case of disaster” (first aid, how to shut down utilities, how to purify water), and 1/3 “where to find shelters, hospitals, and clinics in your area.”

    AND an invitation to the local armory or whatever for training classes.

    This could be a Stimulus thing. Employ writers, artists, local researchers (for part 3), down-on-their-luck printers, and so on.

    1. There’s a difference between stocking for the last days and stocking for a few days until emergency services have kicked in.

      Granted, FEMA demonstrated that one probably should plan for a week or even two, but two year’s a little excessive.

  17. We need to be prepared and understand that government services will not be available, but we also need to be trained to help our neighbors and our neighborhoods. Those on-scene in a disaster should have skills, knowledge and tools. San Francisco’s NERT (Neighborhood Emergency Response Team)training http://www.sf-fire.org/index.aspx?page=859 has prepared over 17,000 people to be prepared, to respond to personal emergencies, and to function as members of neighborhood response teams. NERT developed out of specific actions urged by citizens after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training is available, often for free, in many communities in the US. Check out https://www.citizencorps.gov/cert/ to find out if you have training where you live and how to start one if your don’t.

  18. It’s kind of obvious advice, and good as far as it goes. (Do schools still do anything like the Your Chance To Live series I watched in 8th grade (1976)?) Likewise the wisdome of self-reliance, also up to a point. But coming from the Ole Perfesser, both are disingenuous.

    In Reynolds’ world, we are all Lazarus Long and Friday Jones, organizing our own aid and recovery. This would compensate for a government more to Reynolds’ liking, one in which aid never comes, except maybe in the form of subidies to mercenaries protecting uptown houses from downtown looters.

    Maybe the better lesson to draw from this is that overcoming a disaster and organizing recovery requires a government too big to be “drowned in a bathtub.” The government of Haiti is what the (g)libertarian ideal can lead to, and many of Reynolds’ ideological soulmates helped it on its way there.

  19. Now my excessive purchasing trips to Costco can be justified. Those two cases of water (on sale!!?!?!) are just by me being prudent and safe.

    Are there any additional recommendations on gallons of pickles, mass quantities of Pop Tarts, and cases of beer and wine?

  20. I’m reminded of a Y2k planning meeting where I was asked if I was stocking up on supplies. I replied that as a resident of South Florida, I’ve had to stock up anyway for hurricane season. So nothing special besides the usual.

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