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Is Haiti’s government starting to function?

In a news analysis for the Miami Herald, Jacqueline Charles makes the case that decisive action by Haitian President Rene Preval, who was widely seen as a helpless figurehead after last year’s earthquake, was responsible for the relatively low casualties from Hurricane Tomas: A media-dodging president who has been criticized for poor communication, Préval — ...

THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images
THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images

In a news analysis for the Miami Herald, Jacqueline Charles makes the case that decisive action by Haitian President Rene Preval, who was widely seen as a helpless figurehead after last year’s earthquake, was responsible for the relatively low casualties from Hurricane Tomas:

A media-dodging president who has been criticized for poor communication, Préval — and his disaster-weary, often overwhelmed government — had undergone a transformation.

“In the history of hurricanes in this country, this is the first time that a president took it upon himself to go around and motivate the population in advance of the hurricane’s arrival,” said Ronald Semelfort, Haiti’s chief meteorologist. “This is [how] we were able to limit the number of deaths.”

Officials say 21 died in the storm, which struck Friday, and its aftermath. Tomas dumped 15 inches of rain as it passed over Haiti. In the past, many more have died in storms with far less rain.

The low death toll has been credited not only to Préval’s personal pleas but also to government action. For months the government has been warning Haitians to seek friends and family they could stay with in the event of a weather crisis. Haiti was put on red alert five days before Tomas’ arrival. Throughout the storm, disaster experts gave regular updates and warned Haitians not to cross rivers or stand on bridges. In one community, the police even set up barricades to keep people off a bridge.

Charles also reports, incredibly, that Preval visited more Haitian cities in 72 hours leading up to the hurricane than he did during his entire five years as president. She also gives Haiti’s health ministry decent marks for its handling of Haiti’s ongoing cholera epidemic, which appears to have reached Port-au-Prince:

The health ministry was the first to diagnose the outbreak and has taken the lead, telling nongovernmental organizations that the Haitian government — not the international community — will confirm casualty numbers and dictate where treatment centers are set up. And NGOs have been warned that should they go where they are not authorized, they will be shut down.

The health ministry also has been much more proactive about getting information out, updating its websites every six hours and holding almost-daily 10 a.m. press conferences to inform the public on the disease.

“We realized that [the lack of communication] was at the base of all our problems and we have to communicate directly with the population,” Health Minister Alex Larsen said.

Of course, the government had a bit of a leg up this time. Meterologists have been warning for months of a brutal hurricane season and the spread of disease in Haiti’s earthquake camps has been building since the earthquake. The earthquake came entirely without warning. 

If Preval is finally showing some signs of competence in the waning months of his presidency, that’s a welcome development, no matter what’s spurring him to do it. But if such seemingly small steps are really sufficient to prevent a hurricane from becoming what Paul Farmer calls an "unnatural disaster," you have to wonder why Preval couldn’t have done the same thing in 2008.

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