By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 1/22/2010 12:41:41 PM ET 2010-01-22T17:41:41

As the people of Haiti grow more desperate, it’s difficult to understand why the outpouring of aid — from individuals, relief agencies, corporations and governments around the world — is apparently working so slowly.

We seem to have supplies, food, water, personnel and such on the ground.  So why it is that no one appears to be in charge? 
- James H.

Where is the Red Cross? I have heard about all the money that has been contributed by Americans but I have yet to see any Red Cross help from news crews who haven't seemed to have any trouble getting in.
- Mark R.

The chaos in Haiti has been described by those on the ground as “unimaginable.” But let’s try to imagine what the equivalent devastation might look like in the U.S.

Here’s (roughly) what our country might be dealing in the first week of an equivalent scale of destruction:

The White House and the Capitol have been destroyed. Congress and critical government agencies overseeing finance, health and other domestic services have been critically impaired. Many of the government employees who used to work in those offices are dead.

There is no Pentagon (because there is no Haitian military).

With the risk of aftershocks and doubts about the safety of government buildings still standing, President Barack Obama holds his cabinet meeting outside in a circle of white plastic chairs.

There is no “situation room” set up to coordinate the government’s response. There is no FEMA. The well-financed network of local “first responders” that Americans take for granted is gone. There is no well-supplied National Guard to call up. (Haiti’s limited first response infrastructure was heavily damaged by the quake; many of its trained professionals were killed.)

The U.S. Interstate highway system has been destroyed (there never was one in Haiti), and travel by road is arduous.

The entire air traffic control system has been destroyed. Days after the disaster, it has been replaced by a small makeshift system that includes handheld radios. There is one functioning runway in the entire country at a facility about the size of a small regional U.S. airport. (Before the quake, Haiti’s airport handled about three flights a day. Since the quake, that’s up to 90 flights a day. But cargo planes filled with relief supplies circle for hours waiting their turn.)

The infrastructure to handle marine cargo has been destroyed at the major seaports — New York, Los Angeles, Houston. The only port left operable to serve the entire country is in Charleston, S.C., and it’s not set up to handle large volumes of cargo.

Police and foreign troops are trying to maintain order on the streets, but looting and fires have broken out. The FBI building (in Haiti's case, the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping mission) has been destroyed, and hundreds of people, including the man in charge, have been killed.

As much as one third of the population (in the U.S., roughly 100 million people) are without food, water or shelter and limited means of acquiring it.

The death toll can only be guessed. In a country of 9 million, the loss of 100,000 souls in a single disaster is a little more than 1 percent of the Haitian population, or the equivalent of 3.3 million Americans.

Millions of survivors are in need of urgent medical attention; many simply won’t receive it — even if relief efforts proceed flawlessly. Most local hospitals have been destroyed. The ones that remain have no supplies. Doctors have resorted to using hacksaws and vodka in place of surgical instruments and alcohol.

You probably don't have a savings account or credit card to tap to go live in a hotel for awhile — even if there were enough hotels left standing to get a room. You might try to stay with friends or relatives in the countryside (where, in Haiti, most people live on less than $2 a day). Or you might decide to flee across the border to Canada or Mexico, but you’ll likely be turned back. If you do make it out, you’ll need to find a friend or relative to take you in. You’ll also have to figure out how to get there.

You are powerless to help your friends and family. Even though the world has responded to the horror by sending money, equipment, trained rescue and medical teams, there are massive logistical bottlenecks preventing people and cargo — food, water and medical supplies — from getting to those in need.

As a result, many relief workers and their supplies have to fly into Canada or Mexico, and then try to find a truck and drive across country — dodging impassable roads and bridges. They also need to bring their own fuel. Most gas stations across the country are out of gas; many of those with remaining supplies have no power to pump it out of the ground. (And they can’t go to Home Depot and buy a generator.)

Foreign troops have arrived to help, but they are coordinating their efforts with dozens of other governments. There is no global “command center” to help things run smoothly.

If you're lucky, your house wasn't destroyed — but it may be in danger of collapsing. So you're probably huddled with friends and relatives in a makeshift “tent” city with little more than a blanket to shield you from the sun and rain.

If you’re lucky enough to get food, water or medical attention, it will likely be from one of the rescue or relief workers who just arrived from dozens of countries from around the world. These workers are also trying to cope with the chaos. They probably haven’t slept for days. Like you, they have limited access to information about what’s going on.

You may or may not be able to use your cell phone — though that will probably be one of the first services restored. When it is, expect it to be overwhelmed again by millions of people from outside the country trying to find out if their loved ones are dead or alive. Because many of those lost have been buried in mass graves, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers may never know how their loved ones perished. (A few may learn the horrific details by seeing a photograph or video clip of an identifiable body on a  foreign news report).

With all of the money, people and supplies flooding in, you might expect the chaos to subside in a matter of weeks or months as things begin getting “back to normal.” That’s not going to happen in Haiti. For one thing, “normal” before the quake was a country just beginning to try to emerge from decades of dysfunctional government and abject poverty.

The greatest risk to Haiti’s long-term survival (if not revival) is that the world’s 24-hour news cycle turns its attention to the next disaster, and the opportunity is lost to rebuild Haiti as a viable state. In a wealthy, industrialized nation like the U.S., it’s hard to imagine the world turning its back after a disaster of such epic proportions. (Though readers in New Orleans might take issue with that statement.)

The past week’s outpouring of money and aid is a good start. But rebuilding Haiti will take years.  Once the dead are buried, the wounded attended to and food and water supplies restored, the real work will begin. That will be the truest test of the world’s response to this horrific disaster.

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