Policy

How the U.N., the Media, and the Military Mishandled Haiti's Quake

The disastrous consequences of disaster myths

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"Post-disaster myths are amazingly durable in the face of countervailing evidence," writes Jonathan Katz, who covered the Haitian earthquake for the AP. Falsely convinced that violence would spike in the aftermath of the quake, the authorities "shifted priorities unnecessarily":

Here I come to save the day.

UN peacekeepers, whose ranks also swelled after the quake, organized food distributions with a defensive posture, herding thousands of Haitians into open squares under the sun's apogee, then standing in front of food with riot shields, clubs and rifles at the ready, pepper-spraying and beating people as they came to get the food, with no clear provocation. News accounts often referred to these scenes as "riots."…

The command-and-control organizational structure of the military meant that responders often stayed close to base, overly centralizing efforts and leaving parts of the quake zone unattended for days. Search-and-rescue teams deployed into the field were forced to return to base on vague reports of civil unrest. Haitians were left to wonder, as former Haitian defense minister Patrick Elie did, why so much focus had been [put] on bringing soldiers instead of humanitarians. "The foreign countries that came to our aid fell victim to their own propaganda," Elie told me in 2010. "They were afraid of a monster that never existed except in their own fantasies…that Haitians are bloodthirsty savages."…

In the aftermath of the quake, life in Haiti went on. Sometimes that meant crime, or violent attempts at preserving order. Sometimes Haitians feared that violence might come from another neighborhood, or a different part of the country. But as in New York and New Orleans, most Haitians who lived in the quake zone remembered above all the compassion and community that arose after the disaster: families sharing meager supplies of food and water, people risking injury to save others from the rubble, acquaintances embracing like long-lost siblings each time they met. As a Haitian friend in the quake zone once put it, "Everyone was uniting, everyone was participating, everyone was collaborating." In the hours after the quake, long before the first responders could arrive, I recall Haitians on a downtown road waiting patiently for plates of cooked food for sale under the flicker of a generator-powered light. Everyone standing there knew the days ahead would be difficult, and that they only way to get through them was together.

By the way, those UN peacekeepers probably started a cholera epidemic.

Bonus links: Tate Watkins reviewed Katz's book The Big Truck That Went By for Reason back in January. I wrote about misleading media coverage of the Haiti quake in this article, and I addressed the larger subject of disaster myths not just there but here, here, here, and here. The subject comes up in my book about paranoia, too.