What Lies in the Rubble of Haiti's Presidential Palace

We are all captivated by the photo of the damaged Presidential Palace in Haiti. It shows us that the Haitian earthquake was powerful and overwhelming. After all, the seat of power in that impoverished country is in ruins. What must that say about the remainder of Port au Prince? Imagine what it would have done to the people of this country had it been the White House. This photo captures the incomprehensible destruction in Haiti, but below the surface, perhaps the ruin of the Presidential Palace offers a pathway forward with quiet whispers of a redeemed nation.

No place in the world is ever fully prepared for an earthquake with the intensity of the one that struck Haiti last week. In the United States In 1989, the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck California's Bay Area. With a similar magnitude to the Haitian quake, the 1989 disaster killed 63 people, injured 3,800, and left 30,000 homeless. Despite being engineered to modern seismic standards, the infrastructure of the Bay Bridge was badly damaged. One of the most indelible images from that disaster is the collapsed upper deck of that bridge. Within a month it was patched up, but, as its collapse made it clear, the eastern span needed to be replaced. 20 years later, in one of the great cities of the world's wealthiest nation, construction continues on the new eastern span. It won't open to traffic for another three years, almost 25 years after the quake.

What does that say about Haiti? There are no building codes, no sophisticated urban plans, no developed emergency services. The earthquake destroyed the fabric of that nation. To date, 50,000 bodies have been recovered and the death toll is expected to rise to between 100,000 and 200,000. 3.2 million people have had their lives turned upside down and the fragile and vulnerable infrastructure that had existed is crippled. The Presidential Palace, known as the strongest and best built building in the nation, is ruined. Every family is in tears. Little girls and beloved grandfathers are coming home no more. Schools are in shambles and starvation and rioting is beginning.

It did not have to be this way. The devastation and tremendous loss of life could have been lessened with modern engineering and strong governmental institutions like search and rescue teams and a well trained fire department. The United States has the capacity and knowledge to build in safe and sustainable ways, but in Haiti, it did not happen. Haiti is our neighbor, only 680 miles from our shores, our responsibility. It is morally necessary for the world's wealthier nations, to help those in need. With the proper planning and technology, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved.

The quake in Haiti is especially tragic because after years of political turmoil and devastating hurricanes, Haiti seemed to be on a path forward. Despite the global recession, last year the Haitian economy grew by 2.5%. All of that progress was halted on January 12. Out of the dust of Port-au-Prince, there is a tremendous opportunity to for the United States to help Haiti rebuild in a more sustainable and safe way but to offer what we can to help the nation rebuild her government and institutions.

The rebuilding of Haiti needs to be structured to empower the democratically elected Haitian government. The relief efforts should be designed to accelerate the development and strengthen the Haitian institutions. Rather than providing security strictly through the US military, America's armed forces should be used to augment and train the Haitian security services so they provide their own security. Likewise, USAID should not only provide humanitarian aid, but the aid should be delivered in such a way as to help Haiti develop her own domestic institutions.

Over the next few years, a tremendous amount of international money and aid will flow into Haiti. This money can give Haiti the jump start it needs not only to alleviate its present pain but in a way that strengthens Haitian society. The Haitian government has been criticized for widespread corruption. But again, there is an opportunity here. With international aid comes international accountability. The new funds can be leveraged to demand transparency. They can help the Haitians blot out corruption and establish successful governance. If these renewed institutions can begin to effectively and efficiently provide services, then the government will have more credibility with the people, ultimately creating the infrastructure to tackle some of Haiti's most difficult problems like illiteracy and HIV/AIDS infection.

As Haiti begins to rebuild, the country can either become a model nation with strong governmental institutions or can be more of the same. The ball is in our court. The Presidential Palace will be rebuilt. In future pictures, let it be a symbol of the potential of international cooperation and strength.

This piece was prepared with Jared Feldman, JCPA Deputy Washington Director.