Diplomatic Pouch / January 21, 2016
By Larry Luxner
Six years have passed since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti. And every year at this time, Raymond Joseph — the man who was Haiti’s ambassador in Washington when the disaster struck — reminds anyone who’ll listen that his country still desperately needs help from outside.
This year was no different. On Jan. 8, the cold fog enveloping Washington didn’t deter about 100 people from attending a rooftop fundraiser at the Hall of the States building four blocks north of the U.S. Capitol.
The event, “Leading in Times of Crisis: Project Management Lessons from the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti,” was sponsored by Thelan, a management and consulting firm.
As his audience sat at tables named for each of Haiti’s nine departments, Joseph, 83, recalled the days and weeks immediately following the worst catastrophe ever to have befallen his impoverished Caribbean homeland.
Although only one-fifth of Haiti’s land mass was affected, the damage caused by the quake was equivalent to 80 percent of the country’s GDP. Between 200,000 and 300,000 died people, and another 1.5 million were left homeless.
“In the ensuing chaos, not being able to contact my superiors in Port-au-Prince from Washington as ambassador, I had to step in and help guide my country through the disaster,” Joseph told an audience that included his wife, Lola Poisson.
He recalled that there was absolutely nothing he could do at that moment to prevent the disaster — and the time to have made preparations had already passed.
“In fact, I kept thinking that the damages would have been less serious if the leadership had taken a few simple steps in preparation,” he said. “For instance, implementing building codes in construction could have prevented many losses.”
Two hours after the quake, said Joseph, his embassy in Washington helped open Haiti’s land border with the Dominican Republic to speed the flow of aid.
“The next day, we helped secure the airport in Port-au-Prince which was becomng a free-for-all. The airport control tower had been destroyed and all sorts of aircraft were taking advantage of the chaos,” he said, noting that Haiti was already along a major drug trafficking route. “Thanks to the U.S. Southern Command, order was restored.”
As ambassador, Joseph was responsible for coordinating with many other organizations, including the Greater Washington Relief Fund, which immediately sprang into action collecting aid for Haiti. A 24-hour crisis center was set up in the basement of the Haitian Embassy along Massachusetts Avenue.
“Some organizations and individuals — many of whom are here in this room — gave selflessly of their time, money and contacts,” he said. “Forgive me if I don’t mention names. I don’t want to miss any, but you know who you are. Thank you for what you did.”
Joseph did single out several countries, among them the United States, Canada, China, Ghana, Iceland, Israel, Qatar, South Korea, Venezuela, Taiwan and the Dominican Republic for their generous assistance. Yet with $11 billion pledged by the international community to “help build Haiti back better,” Joseph contends, Haiti should have been on its way to becoming a model country today.
Yet that’s clearly not what happened.
“Having failed in my indirect attempt to mitigate future harm by using aid to decentralize Haiti, and dissatisfied with the authorities of my country, I resigned my post of ambassador and decided to take my message to the whole country,” he said. “I wanted to be in power so I could create policies that would limit the impact of disasters and emergencies in the future. That’s why I declared my candidacy for the presidency in August 2010.”
Joseph was soon disqualified — arbitrarily, he said — but he did end up writing a book. “For Whom the Dogs Spy: Haiti From the Duvalier Dictatorship to the Earthquake, Four Presidents, and Beyond” (signed copies of which were available for purchase after the speech).
The former ambassador also started a nonprofit group.
“After the political disappointment of 2010, I decided to do something for Haiti that would outlive me. I saw that Haiti was becoming a desert — worse than the earthquake because the earthquake affected Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, but the deforestation of Haiti is widespread.”
His once-lush tropical homeland has become an “ecological disaster,” said Joseph, with every avalanche washing tons of topsoil into the sea, and toxic pollutants contaminating marine life. The retired diplomat’s response was to form A Dollar A Tree for Haiti — a Maryland-based 501(c)(3) corporation aimed at raising money to reforest the country. The organization also has a website, www.replanthaiti.org.
“This project has become more than putting a seedling in the ground. It has been a source of employment. It is targeting students who are being encouraged at a young age to be interested in agronomy and reforestation,” he explained. “Eventually, this project will provide a source of revenue from fruits and vegetables for the new entrepreneurs.”
Joseph said that with the $40,000 his group has been able to raise in the last two years, ADATH has managed to plant more than 20,000 trees, build a major nursery, secure 30 acres of land for a pilot project, provide jobs for more than a dozen people, and get students and teachers involved in planting trees.
“Let me end tonight with the famous Chinese proverb that has serious value to me and aligns so beautifully with what we’ve been discussing tonight,” he concluded. “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now. Let us begin today.”