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January 13, 2010

Rebuilding Haiti

By now you've probably heard about the devastating earthquake that leveled Haiti yesterday. "The quake, with a magnitude estimated at 7.0, caused the collapse of the National Palace, leveled countless shantytown dwellings and brought more suffering to a nation that was already the hemisphere’s poorest and most disaster-prone" ["Haitians Confront Devastation of Quake," by Simon Romero and Marc Lacey, New York Times, 13 January 2010]. Romero and Lacey also report:

"The earthquake was the worst in the region in more than 200 years and left the country in a shambles. As night fell in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s densely populated capital, fires burned near the shoreline downtown, but otherwise the city fell into darkness. The electricity remained out during the early hours Wednesday and telephones were not working. It was not immediately clear how badly the Port-au-Prince airport had been damaged and if it would be able to handle aircraft bringing relief aid from overseas. In the chaos, it was not possible for officials to determine how many people had been killed and injured, but they warned that the casualties could be substantial."

Haiti gained its independence from France when revolutionary forces defeated an Army sent their by Napoleon to quell the rebellion. That was about the last good news coming out of Haiti. Since then Haiti has experienced almost continuous intense political and economic disorder. For a more detailed description of the troubles facing Haiti, even before yesterday's earthquake struck, read my post entitled The Conundrum of Haiti. How bad are things right now? Romero and Lacey continue:

"Louise Ivers, the clinical director of the aid group Partners in Health, said in an e-email to her colleagues: 'Port-au-Prince is devastated, lot of deaths. SOS. SOS . . . Temporary field hospital by us at UNDP needs supplies, pain meds, bandages. Please help us.'"

Certainly that is a plea that won't go unnoticed. President Obama has indicated the U.S. is ready to help and some religious organizations indicate that humanitarian relief supplies are already on the way. William Branigin and Michael D. Shear report "that poorly constructed shantytowns and other buildings had crumbled in huge clouds of dust" ["Haiti hit by 7.0-magnitude earthquake; buildings leveled in Port-au-Prince," Washington Post, 13 January 2010]. Even in areas where wealthier residents reside, "a hospital was wrecked and houses had tumbled into a ravine." For all intents and purposes, Haiti is going to have to rebuild from the ground up. Unfortunately, because of the poverty that grips the nation, most people are going to rebuild using the rubble and debris that remains following the earthquake. This begs the question, is there a better way to proceed? That is a question that motivates Lieutenant General John F. Goodman, USMC (Ret), and his dedicated staff at the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance. They are reaching out to numerous organizations, including Enterra Solutions, to try and find better ways of preparing for and responding to natural and man-made disasters.

One of the challenges that they have asked Enterra to explore is: How can one best sequence the many activities that must take place during a crisis response? Enterra is laying out the basics of a system that begins with a knowledge base that contains, among other things, country data, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance best practices and lessons learned as well as an understanding of the basic assets necessary to provide relief. For example: If roads are impassable, what other means of transportation are available? If beasts of burden must be used, how much can they carry and at what speed? If roads are damaged but useable, how much can a truck carry and how fast can it travel on bad roads? Using algorithms and semantic relationships, the system we propose can perform both upstream and downstream analysis to provide sequencing guidance and update the plans as a situation unfolds.

Look at the current situation in Haiti. As of this morning, electricity was still out in the nation's capital. A system that maps relationships based on an ontology can quickly inform responders about all of the components of an electrical system and how they relate -- including which components should be repaired first in order to get the system back up and running. Ideally, the analysis and planning is completed in advance of a disaster, but even after the fact, such a system can help coordinate efforts between disparate responding agencies -- saving both time and money. That's important because, in most crisis response situations, time and money are in short supply.

The Center for Excellence, however, is not just interested in crisis response. Its staff would like to help make communities more resilient so that they can mitigate the effects of a natural disaster. By helping communities develop in a strategic way, the Center believes that the intensity of future responses can be greatly diminished. They understand that developing a new system for development and response won't be easy. Relief and development practitioners have been searching for better ways of doing business for decades; and, to be fair, they have come a long way. Every year best practices get better but they are not efficiently shared across groups working together in a response. The Center wants to take a holistic view of disaster response and development so that it can help advance the state of the art.

Unfortunately for Haiti, the new methodology is only in initial development and so a system that uses it is not yet available. The response to the current crisis will probably be less coordinated than it should be and recovery will be slow and uneven. Sadly, we know that this won't be the last natural disaster that will strike this and other impoverished nations. Maybe next time the international community will have a better way to prepare for and collectively respond when disaster strikes. Although the disaster in Haiti is a tragedy of heartrending magnitude, it provides an opportunity for those interested in creating better ways to help people in distress to improve both disaster response and follow-on development activities. No place on earth needs more help at the moment.

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