01.22.10

Statement On The Earthquake in Haiti

Senate Floor

MR. LEAHY. Mr. President, the widespread devastation and loss of life in Haiti caused by last Tuesday’s earthquake is a tragedy on a scale that words alone cannot adequately describe. The hemisphere’s poorest country, with a history of repeated calamities – some caused by natural disasters, some by corrupt, abusive governments – is facing an humanitarian emergency and reconstruction needs of daunting proportions.    

Three million people affected, hundreds of thousands left homeless, an estimated 100,000 and perhaps twice that many lives lost, and countless children orphaned. The Haitian Government, already of limited capacity, has been severely damaged, and the UN mission in Haiti suffered catastrophic losses. 

Americans, and people around the world, have reacted with compassion and generosity, and a massive relief operation is underway. Search and rescue teams from the U.S. and other countries continue to pull survivors from the rubble more than a week after the buildings collapsed. The U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Departments of State and Defense, and many other Federal agencies, have personnel on the ground. The military has sent ships, planes and troops. 

As one who has visited Haiti and worked each year to increase U.S. assistance for Haiti in the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, this earthquake could not have come at a worse time. There was hope that Haiti, after recovering from three severe hurricanes in 2008 that left much of the country’s infrastructure damaged or destroyed, was poised to finally begin to make real strides toward political stability and economic development. Last Tuesday, in a few terrifying minutes, that hope was buried in rubble.    

The immediate focus is saving lives and helping those who have no place to live and no way to support themselves.   I want to convey my appreciation to the many humanitarian relief organizations, as well as to the UN, the Organization of American States, Pan-American Health Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other international organizations, that mobilized quickly and whose doctors, nurses, and other relief personnel have been working day and night since shortly after the earthquake hit. They are doing an outstanding job under very difficult conditions.

I want to express my condolences to, and admiration for, the Haitian people, who have shown remarkable fortitude and patience in the wake of this catastrophe. Even in the midst of so much misery, there are already glimmers of recovery.   

Some press reporters have focused on incidents of looting, and crowds of desperate people surrounding UN vehicles or scrambling for whatever food or water they can get. But the reality is that those incidents have been the exception.  The vast majority of the survivors, in the midst of a destroyed city and with little food, water or shelter, have refrained from violence and tried to help each other.   

And to the families of others who died or suffered severe injuries, particularly the American citizens who were in Haiti, several of whom were Vermonters or had relatives in Vermont, and who lost their lives when the buildings collapsed, our hearts go out to you.

While a great deal is being done to help alleviate the suffering, I also believe there are important lessons from this experience that will enable us to respond more quickly, and more effectively, when the next disaster strikes. It is more than a week after the earthquake, and many people left homeless have yet to receive food or water, and they have no shelter. The Central America-Caribbean region is among the most disaster prone in the world, due to the many volcanoes, earthquake fault lines, and tropical storms. There are things we can do to be better prepared, and to deliver aid more efficiently, next time. 

I am also concerned that some humanitarian organizations have been unable to obtain access to the Port au Prince airport for several days. Many tons of relief supplies have reportedly been flown instead to the Dominican Republic and trucked by land to Port au Prince, which is expensive and time consuming. While I am aware that the Port au Prince airport can accommodate only a limited number of flights per day, it is my understanding that number now exceeds 120. The U.S. military should take immediate steps to ensure that these organizations have reasonable access for their relief flights. 

Mr. President, the outpouring of generosity by Americans of all ages to the people of Haiti has been extraordinary. Millions of dollars have been donated, and there have been far more offers to volunteer than the relief organizations can accommodate.   I am very proud of the many Vermonters, from nurses to elementary school students, who have sent money or gone to Haiti to help.

Haiti has suffered a devastating blow, but our ties to Haiti and the Haitian people are stronger than ever. We will not only help the Haitian people through this crisis, we will work with them to transform this disaster into an opportunity to rebuild their country better than it was before. 

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