To judge from the State Department’s response to the earthquake in Haiti, our government has not learned the obvious lessons about disaster preparation that it should have after September 11 and Hurricane Katrina. I know, unfortunately, because my family was in Port-au-Prince, where my sister-in-law worked for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. Her father, my brother, and my ten-month-old nephew were with her. They were all unharmed; obviously, many were not so fortunate. I cannot comment on the United States’ relief efforts in Haiti, which I have not seen firsthand and about which I have heard only confused reports. But I did observe the State Department’s response to the relatives of Americans in Haiti, and they suggest that our preparation for disasters needs far more thought.

When a disaster strikes overseas, thousands of Americans call the State Department to find out if their relatives—U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad—have survived it. Americans also call State for information that their relatives need urgently. For example, since the earthquake, phones in Haiti have been down or have worked only intermittently; relatives in the U.S. have tried to convey potentially life-saving information to their family members during brief—miraculous—phone and Internet contacts. A common question from survivors has been, “Can I take my children to the United States if they don’t have U.S. passports?” A rumor is now circulating in Port-au-Prince that the U.S. is charging its citizens to be evacuated. If the rumor is true, it has consequences: a trip to the embassy might not be worth the risk, especially with children, if you have no cash and therefore no hope of getting out.

But as of Friday, if you called the State Department on behalf of a relative in Haiti to ask if the rumor was true, you got no coherent reply. Within hours of the earthquake, the government announced a hotline for relatives seeking information. If you nodded in approval when you saw this and thought, “Good, they’re on top of it,” I’ve got bad news for you: the number didn’t work. “Our customer service representatives,” said a cheerful voice when you called, “are assisting other customers. Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line.” The line then went dead—over and over again.

I can certainly imagine that a lot of calls were coming in. That’s the reason why responsible people, in advance, prepare and test an emergency recording that at the very least does not disconnect all callers. Better still, the system would permit callers to leave messages. And then—it is amazing that I should have to point this out—those calls (as well as e-mails) would be returned. If it is impossible to do so with the number of staff in the office, then you use the volunteers whom you have trained (again, in advance) to do it. It’s not impossible to find and organize competent volunteers: I found 10,000 Kreyol speakers in less than ten minutes on Facebook when I learned that SMS messages from people trapped under the rubble required translation for rescuers. Many volunteered to do the job immediately. If I can do this during a crisis, why can’t the mammoth State Department do it beforehand?

And think about the appalling insensitivity of the message’s diction. Did it not occur to the State Department that anyone using such a hotline would be not a “customer” but a desperate citizen, calling not to order the Maytag repairman but to learn from the government whether his sister, son, or mother was alive or dead? The only callers whom you might conceivably call “customers” were those able to take their business to the State Department’s competitors—that is, those whose relatives were married to a citizen of a country that had prepared for such an event and was answering its citizens’ calls. This was fortunately the case for my family. We will be forever grateful to the Italian government, but I am asking myself why my own was so incompetent by comparison.

Relatives who could not reach State started finding each other on Facebook and Twitter and exchanging what little information they had. In fact, Twitter has been a far more useful source of information than State for desperate relatives of Americans in Haiti. But we’re not ready simply to outsource the State Department to Twitter, which most Americans still don’t know how to use.

A few more tips: If ever the State Department does call or write back to relatives, it should behave in a manner that’s appropriate toward someone whose relatives are unaccounted for after the worst natural disaster in hemispheric memory. If someone can’t figure that out, he should rethink a career in diplomacy. Say a woman writes on January 21 to say that she has just received a frantic call from her cousin, a U.S. citizen, in Port-au-Prince; that her cousin’s baby is getting sicker; and that her cousin is hearing gunfire, is terrified, and needs to know whether to go to the U.S. Embassy or stay put and hope for the Marines. The State Department might think twice before replying in this fashion:

From: Haiti Earthquake
To: Lourdes Fernandez
Sent: Thu, January 21, 2010 12:21:06 AM
Subject: RE: Looking for Romain-Cardozo family

According to our records Sandrine Romain was evacuated on January 20th 2010.

Haiti Crisis Task Force

Sandrine Romain was, and is at the time of this writing, still in Haiti and still frantic. Lourdes Fernández is still trying to get information about evacuation for her cousin, and the questions she is asking are basic: Is it possible? Will her cousin have to pay for it? (Cash machines aren’t working, rendering anyone without ready cash penniless.) Can she bring her husband? Fernández has been sent form letters with no information, told that Romain is not in Haiti, and dismissed by a bureaucrat who told her that to answer her questions would violate the Privacy Act. He advised that he could only provide the information if Romain went to the U.S. Embassy in person and signed a permission form.

Fernández e-mailed this reply to the Haiti Task Force, not unreasonably (I have removed the contact information that she included):

Sandrine Romain and her family are still in Haiti!!!!!!!!
Including a baby who is also an American citizen like his mother!
I just called your office in DC b/c she cannot get through to the embassy in Haiti and I was told that due to the Privacy Act they cannot help me. This is the first time I have been told this in the past week!
AGAIN, her e-mail address is . . . and her cell phone numbers are . . . or . . .
Lourdes B. Fernández

As far as I know, Fernández has not yet received a reply. It would seem that no one at the State Department has ever asked, not to mention answered, an obvious question: “How will we cope if a disaster overseas prompts hundreds of thousands of Americans to call us?” This level of unpreparedness is shocking; it should be disturbing to you even if you never travel abroad and know no one who does. What other obvious questions about disasters, you might wonder, has the federal government failed to ask itself?


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