Horror in Haiti

The horrific images of collapsed buildings and rows of decomposing bodies lying in the streets of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, have left no doubt as to the magnitude of the human catastrophe that occurred there. One of the worst natural disasters this hemisphere has seen in recent memory, the most powerful earthquake to strike Haiti in 200 years, has hit squarely in the nation least able to cope with it. Haiti has long been the poorest nation in the Americas, and years of dictatorship and corruption have made it especially vulnerable to such a calamity and unable to recover on its own.

Within hours of Tuesday's quake, President Barack Obama pledged to assist in the massive international relief effort now under way. Owing to Haiti's proximity and the country's long historical ties to America, it's clear the U.S. must take the lead in search-and-rescue operations and in the reconstruction of Haiti's devastated infrastructure. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscored that commitment by cutting short her trip to the Pacific to attend to the crisis, and former President Bill Clinton's role as the United Nations special envoy to Haiti should help foster a sustained response from the international community.

The U.S. military is sending ships, helicopters, transport planes and a contingent of Marines to the island. Some states, such as Virginia, have already dispatched emergency response teams to the area. Meanwhile, Maryland-based nongovernmental agencies such as Catholic Relief Services and Lutheran World Relief are gearing up to aid with food, water, mattresses, pots and pans, temporary shelter and medical supplies. Catholic Relief Services, for example, has earmarked $5 million to the effort and already has a staff of 300 in the country.

Well-established organizations such as these are in the best position to quickly get help to the most devastated parts of Haiti, but they rely on the generosity of donors back home for the funds needed to sustain their efforts. Most have created Web sites where ordinary Americans can pitch in with contributions. State emergency management officials are encouraging donations of cash rather than clothing or household goods; separating such items is time-consuming and laborious, and they are almost impossible to transport and distribute when roads are blocked and communications poor.

We were heartened to note that one of the first relief planes into Haiti after the earthquake came from China, a country that historically has been inward-looking but now realizes it must shoulder more of the burden of responding to international humanitarian crises if its political stature in the world is to match its economic importance.

Even so, the United States must play the largest role in helping Haiti's citizens recover and rebuild. For all our checkered history in Latin America, no other nation can match our ability to coordinate the many kinds of assistance an effort of this size demands. In particular, Haiti will need American heavy earth-moving equipment to find thousands of people still trapped beneath the rubble.

We stand to reap tangible benefits from helping Haiti rebuild its destroyed infrastructure, both physical and bureaucratic. Haitians have been profoundly disheartened by the ineffectual rescue efforts of their own government, and their disillusionment may finally produce the conditions for reforms the country long has needed. A strong response by ordinary Americans will demonstrate to our leaders that we care about our neighbors' fate. The loss of life and suffering in Haiti is a tragedy; we should not compound it by forgetting about that nation and its people as soon as the earthquake fades from the headlines.

Readers respond

My heart goes out to ALL those who are in need of assistance. I am hopeful that the nations that are contributing will be able to give relief to the survivors and the injured in due time. It makes me smile when I see people motivated to help others in times of trouble, and I pray that their endeavors are not in vain. Matthew