America: the world’s FEMA

Tray Smith

In 2005, politicians, reporters and storm survivors all heaped criticism on the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its slow and ineffective response to the flooding Hurricane Katrina unleashed in New Orleans.

One afternoon, while watching coverage of stranded victims on television, a friend turned to me and said, “Well, imagine what things would be like without FEMA.”

At the time, the point seemed moot. After all, taxpayers provide FEMA with a large staff and a lot of money. They simply ask in turn that the agency be ready to help in case of disaster.

Continuous news coverage of the catastrophe in Haiti over the past week prompted me to revisit that friend’s thought. Everyone who has seen images of the ravaged country can now imagine what things would be like in America if, in times of disaster, there was no FEMA.

Of course, it is not just FEMA. The United States, at both the federal and state levels, possesses a full range of resources that can be used in case of a natural disaster. Haiti has no such resources.

Hence the tremendous international effort being launched to rescue desolate survivors and victims trapped underneath debris in the aftermath of last week’s magnitude-7.0 earthquake, which stuck the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

In this effort, we are reminded of the great suffering and poverty of the Haitian people. Haiti, which can be described as a disaster zone under normal circumstances, has remained isolated from the developed world for decades.

The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti’s dilapidated infrastructure left the country especially vulnerable to this quake. Unfortunately, it took a calamity of this magnitude to bring the largely ignored plight of the Haitian people to the world’s attention.

We are reminded too of our own moral responsibility to be a “Good Neighbor,” as President Franklin Roosevelt once described our policy towards Latin America.

This means more than just rushing to aid victims in disaster or dolling out foreign aid dollars. It also requires loaning our best and brightest minds to assist our neighbors in developing the institutions that support modern civilization, without infringing on their unique cultures.

Only then can we help countries build sustainable economic and political systems independent of American financial support.

We are reminded of the indispensible role the United States plays in the world. Of course, some other countries have contributed generously to Haiti, notably European Union members who pledged over $600 million in aid.

Still, make no mistake, U.S. leadership is holding the Haitian relief operation together.

Our government has pledged $100 million to the effort, more than any other. Text messages in the U.S. have raised $5 million, more than the combined contributions of China and India. More private and public commitments are sure to follow from our country. In an era of increasing skepticism towards U.S. power, America has yet again proven its viability as a force for good.

We are reminded of the noble sacrifice and efficiency of our troops. Tuesday, one week after the earthquake hit, the number of American soldiers deployed to Haiti was ratcheting up towards 11,000.

They took over the airport and turned it into an artery for aid shipments, making it the only functional institution in Port-au-Prince. In doing so, our men and women in uniform proved their usefulness in peaceful operations in addition to war, just as they did after the 2004 Asian Tsunami.

Filling the vacuum left by the nonfunctioning government, our forces are now providing security for humanitarian groups and coordinating the delivery of essential supplies.

America’s military presence has been so pronounced that government officials have felt compelled to reiterate that the U.S. has no intention of occupying Haiti.

Americans are reminded, finally, of how good we really have it.

Not because of our flat screen TV’s and nice cars, but because of simple things: our fire and police departments, our roads and water supplies, our hospitals and doctors. Yes, our government.

It is one thing to complain about how long it takes food to arrive after disasters strike our own homeland. It is another thing entirely to realize that, when disasters strike places like Haiti, if not for the United States, food may never arrive. America is the FEMA of the world.

Tray Smith is a freshman majoring in economics. His column runs biweekly on Wednesdays.