Letter From New York January 18, 2010

I know very little about Haiti.

I know it is reputedly the most impoverished country in the hemisphere.  I know French is the language and they won their freedom from the French at the beginning of the 19th Century.  I know Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.  I know my mother stopped there on a cruise and was shocked by the level of poverty.  I know it suffered a catastrophic earthquake this past week, with destruction of a magnitude that is almost impossible to imagine.

It has been hard to put fingers to keyboard.  Every other event or situation this week has paled against the backdrop of this tragedy, a word that seems too soft for events in that poor country.  And I have not known what to say regarding Haiti.  Coming home last night and other nights this week I have been riveted to the news, watching the awful scene unfold in front of me on the television screen.  In a move that was different from my recent behavior, I found myself looking to the television screen rather than my computer screen for updates on events.  The catastrophe filled the airwaves and news channels were focused on Haitian events; visuals were not hard to find and this is a story of devastating visuals.

As is often the way, Americans have begun to donate money. Millions have been raised by texting the word “Haiti” to 90999, thus donating $10 to the American Red Cross via your cell phone bill; the sum is over $10,000,000 so far.  An acquaintance is flying to Haiti on Thursday with volunteers funded through the Clinton Foundation. All major organizations seem to be directing funds to Haiti

It is a story that has pushed all other stories away from the front page, below the fold.  Obama has pressed Clinton and Bush 2 into service to focus attention and raise funds for Haiti.  U.S. service men and women have arrived and are arriving to help maintain order, get supplies through the bottleneck at the airport and to provide desperately needed medical aid.  I watched reporters this morning discuss their reactions to what they’re seeing and they are overwhelmed, all saying they were witnessing the worst situation they have ever seen.

The loss of life is profound and may reach higher numbers than the death toll in the Chinese earthquake and it is in our own backyard, not all that far from our shores, inflicted upon people who have significantly less internal resources than the Chinese.

It is a tragedy of a depth I find hard to comprehend.  I was in Los Angeles for the 1994 Northridge earthquake and so have some base of experience yet I cannot imagine what this is like.  In Los Angeles, the earthquake struck a city that had evolved knowing it was vulnerable to earthquakes and so had built itself accordingly.  The destruction was terrible but mitigated by construction designed to survive and bolstered by an infrastructure that survived the earthquake and was able to respond.  In Port Au Prince the city was not built to earthquake standards and has little social service infrastructure that seems to have survived the quake.

This is the kind of cataclysm that results in men and women of faith looking skyward and wondering where is God in all of this?  It is the common result of any tragedy, of events in life that seem unfair and unjust.   It is devastation not often seen on such a scale and it will live with all of us for a long time to come, reminding us of the fragility of life and the power of nature and, hopefully, the resilience of the human spirit to rise above tragedy and, at the end, come to peace with it.

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