01.15.10

We Missed the Moment

In the rush to help Haiti, there was too much planning and too little action. Clive Irving on the critical logistical failures of the largest triage since the plague. Plus, view photos.

There are so many kinds of despair to feel as we look at the hell on earth called Haiti. It gets personal for me. I see a yawning gap between what the president ordered to be done Wednesday and what actually was done. He was very explicit that the first 36 hours or so were critical. That was the window for getting to possibly thousands of people still alive but trapped in collapsed buildings.

It’s personal because of what I saw and learned in the days following the bombing of the Alfred  P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in April, 1995. I was there to edit a book about the bombing and the rescue effort to help raise funds for the victims ( In Their Name). Talking to the rescue crews and survivors gave me a quick and concentrated education on the skills needed to find and save people trapped in collapsed buildings.

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One of the country’s most skilled experts in this field was a silver-haired fire chief from New York called Ray Downey. He was known for an uncanny ability called “reading the wreck.” He could look at a collapsed structure and instantly see the form of its failure and, crucially, where voids might exist that enabled victims to survive long enough to be rescued. (The last living victim pulled out of the Murrah building emerged only 15 hours after the blast.) With enormous and tragic irony, Chief Downey himself died in a command center in a building next to the World Trade Center that collapsed on 9/11.

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It was Ray Downey who impressed on me that after a building collapses you have a very limited time to get the people and equipment in place to give yourself a chance of bringing out people alive. (An architect was pulled alive out of a building in Port au Prince after falling three floors into a void, something Downey called “taking the slide.”) This is why, looking at the catastrophe in Haiti, I see the Murrah building multiplied thousands of times and realize how appallingly inadequate the resources are for rescue.

The Daily Beast’s full Haiti coverage So my frustration has been deep and choleric as I watched the way the resources of the U.S. were deployed in the first 36 hours in Haiti. In an interview on  PBS Newshour Thursday, President Clinton said that it was clear that nobody was yet in charge of the rescue effort. Given that vacuum, and the patent absence of any government response in Haiti, what was needed in the first days was an improvised and opportunistic first response to get the heavy lifting machinery, search and rescue crews and medical supplies on the ground. This was the largest triage field the world has known since the plague.

What we saw instead was a classic military plan—to assess from the air and from the ground what the impact was, what the logistical challenges would be and what resources could be marshaled for the task. But given the harrowing circumstances I have a real problem with that classic military habit of mind. As the 19th century chief of staff of the Prussian Army, Helmuth von Moltke, warned: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” In this case, what nobody in Washington seems to have grasped is that no plan will survive first contact with a disaster of this scale. Sometimes you can have too much planning and too little action. That is what happened. We have missed the moment when “reading the wreck” could have had its maximum opportunity. Between the Pentagon, the direction from the USAID chiefs assigned to the task, and their masters at the State Department, the initiative, if there was one, was lost.

No point in lamenting that any more. Search and rescue teams from Virginia and California (the same places that sent teams to Oklahoma City) did get in, as did others from Europe, Asia and the Americas. (Note with shame that more flights arrived after flying the Atlantic and the Pacific than did the flights from the U.S., only two hours away.) Now the chokepoint is, predictably, the airfield at Port au Prince, which lost its air traffic control equipment. It’s now under the control of the U.S. military, using portable ATC facilities. But the problem is not just getting planes in and out, there are limited parking spaces on the tarmac and, with the power out, meager resources for unloading and fueling.

You have to wonder whether two wars have depleted our ability to provide humanitarian relief with the same energy devoted to the battlefields.

Desperate measures are now being discussed. A floating airstrip, for one, but that could be used only by helicopters. Parachute drops of supplies—but they would require secure drop zones and, in any case, you can’t drop heavy lifting equipment of the kind needed to lift large pieces of concrete entombing people. The air force’s heavy lifters, the C17s, could bring in that grade of help, but were clearly not assigned to do so at the beginning. You have to wonder whether two wars have depleted and weakened our ability to provide humanitarian relief with the same resources and energy devoted to the battlefields.

And here is a poignant detail: NPR reported Friday morning that one aid group has been flying from Florida into Port au Prince for days using a DC-3, a World War II vintage transport—an airplane capable of landing on grass if the earth beneath is firm and dry and of parking there if necessary. Which reminds me of one of the true wonders of American military logistics, the Berlin airlift carried out between June 1948 and May 1949. The rescue mission saved the city when the Russians blockaded road and rail connections, trying to starve the population. Haiti today needs that kind of vision, courage and skill to get through.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation—find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.