by Austin Bay
January 11, 2005
July 11, 1999: We'd just finished the morning briefing and were
leaving the command tent when the earthquake struck. I was serving as deputy
commander of a U.S. Army Reserve Hurricane Mitch recovery operation in
southeastern Guatemala, near the city of Puerto Barrios. Overnight, a
tropical depression had dumped 10 inches of rain on our base. The soggy
ground shook, bricks toppled as the walls of nearby buildings swayed, and I
fell to my hands and knees, landing on a wooden loading pallet. The shake
seemed to last forever. I remember thinking, "I am bouncing on this damn
thing like a rabbit."
Our recovery and reconstruction aid mission quickly became an
emergency relief operation. The task force commander, a reserve colonel from
Dallas who is also a civil engineer, helped the Guatemalans with damage
assessment. Our medical company provided emergency aid to the entire region.
The Indian Ocean mega-quake and tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, dwarf
the magnitude 6.6 Guatemalan quake I experienced. There's no comparison in
casualties. The December tsunami's death toll has reached 160,000. The
Guatemalan casualties were fortunately low, with two killed and a few score
injured. Hurricane Mitch, however, killed at least 20,000 when it struck in
fall 1998 -- a terrible natural disaster.
The Puerto Barrios quake was still a heartbreaker. It damaged
three months' worth of reconstruction work on river dikes that Hurricane
Mitch had destroyed. At a meeting five days after the quake, a Guatemalan
Coast Guard captain -- leaning on a pair of crutches -- told me with a
despondent shrug: "This is Central America, Colonel. Hurricanes,
earthquakes, volcanoes. We get ahead in one place, another disaster pulls us
Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly told President George
W. Bush that the tsunami left Indonesia's Aceh province "like something the
equivalent of Hiroshima." It will take a long-term aid commitment to restore
the Indian Ocean region. Bush told employees of the U.S. Agency for
International Development (USAID) that the tsunami aid mission "is one of
those projects that's not going to happen overnight. The intense scrutiny
(by the media) may dissipate ... but our focus has got to stay on this part
of the world."
There are arguably four types of aid: emergency, recovery,
reconstruction and developmental. In the two weeks since the tsunami, we've
seen a remarkably agile and effective display of emergency aid (medical,
food, rescue) provided by the U.S. and Australian militaries and the Red
Cross. Once the immediate needs are met, the recovery phase begins --
reorganizing basic services, opening permanent supply routes, reuniting
families. There's a hazy line between recovery and reconstruction -- but
reconstruction aid intends to rebuild damaged infrastructure. Smart
reconstruction aims to "rebuild better" (stronger materials, better
location, etc.) to reduce the threat of future natural disasters.
Reconstruction begins to blend with developmental aid -- aid
designed to ultimately permit "self-development" by locals. Education and
economic investment are part of a long-term developmental aid program. The
Guatemalan task force I served with drilled new water wells and built new
school rooms -- reconstruction stretching into developmental work.
The tsunami's Hiroshima-like destruction leaves us with an
extraordinary challenge. Wealthy nations have been generous -- the billions
raised are a blessing -- but sincere emotional responses and initial charity
must be followed by sustained, effective action.
That means a lot of sweat and toil by men and women working for
both government agencies and civilian organizations.
Effective sustained action also means sustained oversight.
Unfortunately, the United Nations has a poor track record for managing
big-ticket operations. "The Lords of Poverty" by British journalist Graham
Hancock (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989) offers a lesson in the pitfalls of
"big development" projects that aren't held accountable for results -- and
sometimes aren't held accountable for funds.
USAID, fortunately, has a good track record for managing its
missions. A retired USAID official told me that's because the U.S. Congress
demands accountability. This suggests that tsunami reconstruction and
developmental aid programs should be organized and led by a "coalition of