Friday, January 15, 2010

Port-au-Prince: Devastation and Response

What does one say when a tragedy of this magnitude hits an entire country? For those who don’t yet know -Port-au-Prince the capital of Haiti was struck by massive earthquake last Tuesday afternoon. Deaths are expected to climb well beyond 50,000 people according to the International Red Cross.

Some estimates say that the death toll will exceed 100,000 people! The last time anything of this magnitude happened was in 2004 when an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a tidal wave to hit Indonesia. That one killed 230,000 people!

Countless numbers have been injured in this earthquake. Government buildings are in ruin. Two major hospitals were leveled even though they were of the sturdiest of construction. Countless homes all over Port-au-Prince were reduced to rubble.

Millions of people are now homeless. Possessions destroyed. As of last night there was still no electric power. Sewer systems were wrecked. Sanitation conditions are impossible. There are dead bodies everywhere. They are being piled up for purposes of identification – after which they are being buried in mass graves! The stench of death is everywhere. The spread of disease is almost certain - especially to the many who have been injured with open wounds.

The images being broadcast on television are devastating. Many people lying down in the street with all manner of serious injury. One child I saw was sitting naked in the street, shaking back and forth, with no one beside him – looking up and around desperately seeking help from anyone as people passed him by in what seemed like bewilderment - not knowing what to do where to get food and water or where they will sleep that night.

Many people are still unaccounted for. Rescue workers are looking for bodies buried under the rubble... I don’t recall seeing anything like it in my lifetime. The devastation being broadcast on TV looks almost like a scene from a World War II movie about the aftermath of bombing of Dresden.

And this is only the beginning. Things will probably get a lot worse before they get better. No water, no food, no place to sleep, nowhere to go -I can barely imagine what kind of havoc this will bring for those poor people. The one word that I think best describes the state of mind of the people there is desperation!

I am at a loss for words.

I only hope that this tragedy is not used for some agendized religious purpose. Blaming the tragedy on some form of public sin for which God poured out wrath. Pat Robertson has already tried that. I’m waiting for some religious Jewish figure to tell us what sins he thinks religious Jews are guilty of to blame this tragedy on. What will it be this time? What message will they say God is sending us via the tragedy that befell the Haitian people? What will be said about why God decided to kill tens of thousands of people in a natural disaster?

I sincerely hope no one does that. Why did it happen? Only God knows.

If there is anything good about this tragedy it is the way the US has risen to the occasion. They have virtually taken charge of the relief effort. The American people are opening up their pocketbooks. As they always do. Money is pouring in to international relief agencies. People from all walks of life and all parts of the country - it seems - are running over there to help in any way they can.

From the President to the private citizen – many are going all out to save human lives. America certainly deserves the appellation given to it by Rav Moshe Feinstein. It is the Medina Shel Chesed - the country of compassion.

It is heartening to know that there are so many humanitarian organizations and people from all over the world coming to Haiti. This included a delegation from Israel who will set up a field hospital bringing many doctors and nurses with them. It was a proud moment for me to see PBS interviewing Jews wearing Tzahal uniforms – some with Kipot –preparing to leave Israel for Port-au-Prince in this mission of mercy.

There are some truly good human beings in this world. They seemed to have just dropped what they were doing and rushed over there to see how they could help.

How about Charedi Jews? Are any going over there? Are they as altruistic as those people I just described?

The answer is yes they are. A group trained in rescue work that happened to be in Mexico completing another humanitarian mission is going directly to Haiti. That group is ZAKA. It is ironic that I just wrote a post in which I praised ZAKA founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav for the Kiddush HaShem he constantly makes with that organization. If I am not mistaken they were there to help New Orleans after Hurricane Katarina hit. And now they are going to be in Haiti doing whatever they can to help the victims there.

Another Kiddush HaShem.

Speaking of Charedim - For those who are so inclined I received the following list of relief organizations from Agudah:

American Red Cross National Headquarters
2025 E Street,
NWWashington, DC 20006

88 Hamilton Ave.
Stamford, CT USA 06902

American Jewish World Service
45 West 36th Street, 11th floor
New York, NY 10018-7904

Statement by the Orthodox Union:

Jews are described by the Talmud as "rachmanim b'nei rachmanim,” a particularly compassionate people who are sensitive to the suffering of all, and we cannot sit by and ignore this terrible drama of human suffering and misery.

Your donation will be directly forwarded to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The JDC has already helped send an Israeli relief team of medical, search and rescue, and post-trauma counseling experts to assist survivors and will continue to assist with the help of our contributions. Your support is needed immediately. Please be generous.

They have set up a website for donations. It is located here.

Update (1/18/10 - 1:56pm CST)
Upon further review, I have removed Oxfam from the above list of agencies - sent out by Agudah - where one can donate money to the Haitian rescue effort. They are apparently a virulently anti-Israel organization - as accused by some of the commenters here. I am surprised that Agudah has not themselves rectified this. If they can send out a mass e-mail to their mailing list with these names on it, they should send out an e-mail correction to the same list.