It was haunting, perhaps more so after our own Surfside tragedy, to see Haitian men lifting big chunks of rubble with their bare hands to reach survivors.
No gloves, no equipment, only superhuman efforts in those critical hours, and beyond, after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck southern Haiti on Saturday, bringing new devastation to the poorest country in the hemisphere.
No fleet of ambulances stood ready to transport the injured or provide first aid. Only men who lifted a man with a broken leg into the back of a van and hoisted a woman, likewise injured, onto the back of a motorcycle to drive them to the airport to be transferred to a hospital in Port-au-Prince.
It is haunting, once again, to see the faces of sweet children in pain, bones broken, tears falling and stunned stares, this time in Les Cayes, where the Miami Herald’s Caribbean/Haiti correspondent Jacqueline Charles, and visual journalist Jose Iglesias, are risking their lives to chronicle tragedy amid violent political unrest and criminal gangs.
Stepping up for Haiti
Haiti’s new trauma, compounded by a repeated cycle of catastrophic natural and political disasters, touches us all. South Florida is responding like we always do, with generous donations of supplies and money that make a huge difference — and, equally important, with open arms to survivors seeking medical care and shelter.
The U.S. government, too, has stepped up in a big way.
The Biden administration deployed a 65-person search-and-rescue team, four canines and 52,000 pounds of tools and equipment. With major roads and bridges between Port-au-Prince and the affected areas damaged, the Defense Department and the Coast Guard provided eight helicopters to transport American rescue responders, while the Navy is supplying aerial images of impacted areas.
But Haiti needs more than the diaspora’s charity and emergency management. Haitians need more than our sorrow and condolences. They need long-term sustainable solutions to their economic and political predicament.
No one can change the geographic misfortune of sitting on a fault line between huge tectonic plates, while also in the path of ravaging hurricanes.
But the man-made problems of dire poverty, political corruption and instability can be alleviated if stakeholders in the recovery effort, including the U.S. government, remain involved and committed after the dead are buried and the injured healed.
A strong Haitian diaspora
Basic infrastructure — sturdy housing for people, schools and hospitals that can withstand hurricanes and a clean water supply, to name some dire needs — just isn’t there in everyday life, let alone to deal with recurring disasters.
Despite promises — and the delivery of considerable aid and support from around the world after the 2010 earthquake claimed more than 300,000 lives — there wasn’t a tangible upgrade to Haitians’ lives.
The nation has never fully recovered, and perhaps it never will until Haitians find a way to put aside the political discord and violence that led to the brazen assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July.
Yet there’s a point of strength for Haiti — and it lies in its diaspora in the United States.
That’s why a component of the U.S. government strategy to help Haiti should be to recognize that giving protected status to Haitians in this country is a stabilizing force for Haiti. Not only Temporary Protected Status for victims of disasters that keeps Haitians in perennial immigration limbo, but also pathways to residency and citizenship.
Expand TPS and stop deportations; it’s the least the U.S. government can do now for Haitians. They shouldn’t have to live under the constant threat of family separations and job losses caused by immigration protections being stripped away.
A stable and prosperous Haitian community here can be a driving force in the development of a more resilient and sustainable Haiti.
Haiti needs Haitian American builders, entrepreneurs and investors to break through the poverty cycle. Haiti needs hospitality and tourism initiatives that mean jobs for people on every corner of a beautiful and largely unexplored island. Haiti needs savvy leaders and one of them may well be now attending a U.S. university.
Real solutions may remain far out in the horizon and, in the midst of today’s suffering, may seem like a pipe dream.
But a strong, secure diaspora could mean a more resilient Haiti.
Fabiola Santiago is a columnist for the Miami Herald.