Haiti: What Have We Learned from Past Disasters?

I would like to share with you what I have learned from past natural disasters. But before I do that, let's take a moment and look at a few important points. The tragedy in Haiti reminds us all, once again, of how precious and fragile life is. While I cannot comprehend the horror Haitians are now experiencing, I can profoundly empathize. One minute you are going about your daily routine, and the next you are fighting for survival and searching for loved ones. Veteran aid workers and journalists are calling the situation "unprecedented and apocalyptic," and the pictures and dispatches are beyond harrowing. The fact that the people and government of Haiti were struggling in so many ways before January 12th just compounds this tragedy even more.

The Haitian earthquake reminds us that natural disasters do indeed discriminate. As a point of comparison, the 1989 San Francisco earthquake was actually stronger -- at 7.1 on the Richter scale -- than the one that hit Haiti. Yet, when you weigh the loss of lives and levels of devastation, there is no comparison. Sixty-three people died in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. Sadly, we will not know the final death toll in Haiti for months to come (if we ever really do), but the estimates run anywhere from 150,000 - 300,000+. It is heartbreaking.

Some of this stark disparity is due to exactly where the Haitian quake was located, but the real reason is poverty. Years of civil strife, environmental degradation and crippling poverty have left Haiti in dire straits. That is why international support and a sustained response is of such extreme importance.

As in all times of natural disaster, there is one potent countervailing force that can match the power of nature -- and that is the human heart. According to latest UN estimates, pledges by individuals, countries, companies and international organizations are at $775.55 million, and that figure is expected to climb. Even more importantly, the real-time stories of heroism by Haitian survivors and first-responders remind us all of the resiliency and strength of the human spirit.

At the Happy Hearts Fund (HHF), we have witnessed over and over again how smart, strategic post-disaster initiatives restore hope and opportunity to natural disaster survivors. Our focus is children and, over the last four years, we have worked in eight natural disaster-affected countries, including Haiti, building or rebuilding 43 schools that have enabled 12,000+ children to return to school. Ultimately, our work has helped more than 250,000 community members get back on their feet.

What have we learned from past natural disasters? Unfortunately, at HHF, we have all too often witnessed what we call "The Gap" -- a yawning yet critical time period when the first response is over, the TV cameras go home, and the real reconstruction is supposed to begin. Too often, there is a significant delay, if it even happens at all. Whether it be Hurricane Katrina (August 2005), the Pakistani earthquake (October 2005), the Peruvian earthquake (August 2007) or the most recent earthquake in Indonesia (September 2009), we have found ourselves to be one of the few -- or even the only -- international NGOs on the ground implementing programs, getting children back to school and communities back on the track to recovery.

While we have great results, this distinction has less to do with us and more to do with the fact that, once media attention has shifted elsewhere, the interest of the international community begins to wane. In the face of insufficient support or lack of sustainable programming, it can take poor communities anywhere from six to 10 years to recover. Peru is a strong case in point. Two and a half years after the August 2007 earthquake, there are still more than 2,180 schools that need to be rebuilt. Yet, there is no sense of urgency to do so, and very few organizations on the ground making it happen. I was in Peru in December 2009 and took this picture of a temporary "school" in Santa Rosa that we only just started to rebuild. How are children supposed to return to any sense of normality in conditions like this? We regret that we could not start rebuilding sooner but we were only just recently able to raise the requisite funds. Santa Rosa School, Peru -- December 2009

Children suffer most in "The Gap" because the sooner they can get back to the safety and security of a school environment, the sooner their healing process can begin. We see our schools serve as a critical source of light and hope, not just for children and their families, but for the entire community. In some cases, we even see families from surrounding communities migrate into districts where HHF has rebuilt schools, as the word spreads of accelerated recovery, quality education and a brighter future. A good example of HHF stepping in to fill "The Gap" is in the Bandung region in West Java, Indonesia. Immediately after the September 2, 2009, earthquake there, HHF identified 40 kindergartens that were severely damaged, yet receiving no real support. We have a long way to go but, in less than two months, we had already rebuilt two and have begun reconstruction on two others. The Ade Irma kindergarten below cost just $33,545 to rebuild (including furniture and playground equipment) -- an incredibly cost efficient use of funds. We are keen to rebuild the rest, and we are working to raise the funds to do so. But time is of the essence, and, as far as we can tell, school reconstruction is not as high on the recovery agenda as it should be. As in Indonesia, we will work to fill the gap in Haiti as well. Ade Irma Kindergarten, West Java before Reconstruction (September 2009)

Ade Irma School, West Java after relocation/building of entire new building (January 2010)

As children's advocates, we are committed to ensuring that "The Gap" is mitigated as much as possible in the case of Haiti and all future natural disasters. We are heartened by the pledges of various political and civic leaders that appear to recognize this and look forward to their support, as HHF initiates its action plan in the weeks, months and years ahead:

We also know that our longer-term effort will not be measured in days and weeks; it will be measured in months and even years... We are going to be making slow and steady progress, and the key now is... for everybody in Haiti to understand that there is going to be sustained help on the way... when the news media starts seeing its attention drift to other things but there's still enormous needs on the ground...

As President Obama has said, we will be here today, tomorrow and for the time ahead. And speaking personally, I know of the great resilience and strength of the Haitian people. You have been severely tested. But I believe that Haiti can come back even stronger and better in the future.

And we want to stay with this over the long run...I believe before this earthquake Haiti had the best chance in my lifetime to escape its history -- a history that Hillary and I have shared a tiny part of. I still believe that.

Oprah Winfrey on The Oprah Winfrey Show: January 21 2010

"I want everybody to do what they can right now and we will use our platform to follow what these foundations and NGO's are doing in the future because it's what's going to happen 6 months from now that's really going to count."

At HHF, we pledge our time, our hearts and our resources. In partnership with a diverse group of leaders and organizations from around the world, we have developed our plan for the long-term support of Haiti's children. We have oriented the focus of our current public education campaign -- Bring Happiness Back! -- to the children of Haiti, and we will apply our time-tested model of school reconstruction and microenterprise development to ensure that they -- and their parents -- are able to emerge from this devastation better and stronger than before.

Yes, things look very bad now. Nevertheless, I am more encouraged than ever by the extraordinary response of the international community and the seemingly earnest commitments by global leaders that they will remain in partnership with Haiti over the long term of reconstruction and recovery. Please join the Happy Hearts Fund, as we make a better future for Haiti's children and bring their happiness back. We urge people to visit our Web site at www.happyheartsfund.org and to consider supporting our school reconstruction efforts in Haiti and elsewhere. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.