Helping Haiti

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Lessons from the past

Ronald Waldman in Port-au-PrinceRonald Waldman, an epidemiologist and Mailman professor, was in Port-au-Prince for six weeks following the disaster, serving as the U.S. government coordinator of medical and health-sector response. A physician specializing in child health in developing countries, Waldman has worked in complex emergencies in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Albania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Iraq. “I have seen a lot of disasters, but the destruction of this city is unfathomable,” Waldman said days after the quake. “We teach about direct and indirect consequences of disasters and about how they should be approached sequentially, but here they have to be addressed simultaneously.”

While several faculty are serving on the ground in Haiti, others are mapping out long-term recovery plans from New York. Neil Boothby, with more than 20 years’ experience working with children in crises, has been advising the U.S. government and UNICEF on child protection issues in Haiti. Boothby is the Allan Rosenfield Professor of Clinical Forced Migration and Health at Mailman and director of the school’s Program on Forced Migration and Health. He knows firsthand the mistakes and successes that can occur in crisis response: He wrote UNICEF’s postprogram review of the 2004 Asian tsunami relief effort. “We have to ensure that lessons from the tsunami be integrated into the Haiti response,” says Boothby. “Today, and before the earthquake in Haiti, too many people died because of poor water and sanitation and lack of immunization. We need to help Haiti build public health structures that support a continuum of health, from the home to the clinic to the hospital.”

Marc Levy, the deputy director of CIESIN, is among several Columbia faculty members who have long-standing research projects in Haiti and who are now adapting their work to help the country rebuild. When the earthquake hit, Levy was in Haiti with CIESIN colleague Alex Fischer. “The shaking seemed to go on forever,” he says. Levy directs the Haiti Regeneration Initiative, a partnership between the Earth Institute and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to restore damaged ecosystems in the country. Levy and his team successfully mapped the watershed surrounding Port-au-Prince. They tested soil to see what nutrients it needed, identified deforested areas prone to landslides, and compiled historical rainfall statistics.

Levy’s goal is to determine which crops will grow best in the area and how to provide clean drinking water to the region’s 2.9 million people. “It’s an ecological focus,” Levy says. “Before the earthquake, two-thirds of the country’s population lived in rural areas with high levels of poverty and a vulnerable landscape.”

Levy and Fischer are now back in United States, but they’ll return to Haiti in a few months to assess where the earthquake has disturbed soils and hillsides, increasing the chances of dangerous landslides. “The idea is to get people to grow crops in areas most suitable,” he says, “and get trees planted in places most needed.”

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