Baltimorean leads U.S. rebuilding efforts in Haiti

Chris Milligan had less than two days to pack up and get himself to Port-au-Prince.

"I bought some shirts, paid my bills and went," the Baltimore native says over the telephone from the Haitian capital.

It was far from Milligan's first visit to a crisis zone — the U.S. Agency for International Development veteran has worked in Iraq, Zimbabwe and more than 50 other countries. Still, he says, he was struck by the devastation the January earthquake had wrought.

"The scale of the destruction can't be overstated," says Milligan, 44. "It's overwhelming, even today."

USAID is managing the U.S. government's relief and rebuilding effort in Haiti, marshaling contributions from the departments of Defense, Agriculture and Health and Human Services. Milligan, a graduate of Loyola High School, is directing the USAID effort as the U.S. coordinator for disaster response in Haiti.

Five months after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince, 1 million Haitians still are living in temporary settlements and camps. Now that the rainy season has started, aid and development workers are laboring to safeguard hundreds of thousands of people while attempting to rebuild the nation.

Their work is made more difficult by the limited infrastructure in the hemisphere's poorest nation.

"The scale of the disaster — tons and tons of rubble," Milligan says, is "further challenged by the poverty."

But they are racing against time. Milligan says USAID is concerned with preventing a "second wave of death" that could be delivered by the diseases that proliferate in unsanitary conditions.

At a donors' conference this month, world leaders stressed that rebuilding is crucial to Haiti's political stability. Meeting in the neighboring Dominican Republic, representatives of about 90 countries discussed ways to bolster housing, energy, agriculture, economic development and government.

The conference plans to administer $5.3 billion in reconstruction projects through 2011. USAID has contributed more than $606 million to the earthquake response.

"The challenge is making the transition from relief to reconstruction," says Lewis Lucke, the diplomat who preceded Milligan as disaster response coordinator.

Lucke, who met Milligan in Iraq, where they worked together on reconstruction after the 2003 U.S. invasion, called Milligan the obvious choice to succeed him in Haiti.

"He was the right guy at the right time and right place" to help plan the reconstruction, Lucke says. "He's very smart, dynamic, he works very hard. He's very determined to do the right thing."

Milligan was a student at Loyola in Towson when he made his first trip overseas, to France and Spain. As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, he worked for several months on a remote island in the Philippines, followed by a three-month tour of Asia.

Milligan joined USAID in 1990. He says he's always had a "sense of exploration and curiosity. I've just been so lucky."

On the challenges of working in Haiti, he says, "What I really love about this job is providing assistance to make a change."

"He deeply believes in what he does," says Peter Natiello, his deputy in Haiti.

Natiello says one of Milligan's strengths is bringing people together. Milligan attributes any progress in Haiti to a united international effort.

"The world came together, and because of that, the recovery has been great," he says. "We continue to focus on rebuilding to help the people of Haiti to build back better."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized comments by Baltimore native and U.S. Agency for International Development official Chris Milligan about the potential for a "second wave of death" in Haiti. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.