The unfolding crisis in Haiti is drawing the attention of the world, as international governments, nonprofit agencies and private-sector groups try to stem the tide of suffering and violence there.
For former Brewer economic development director Andrew Sachs, the aftermath of last week’s earthquake presents a critical opportunity to do what he does best — bring his considerable emergency management expertise, experience and resources to the scene and see the results.
“This is going to be a long haul — many years of recovery efforts under highly complex conditions,” Sachs said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “This will make Hurricane Katrina look simple.”
Ironically, as vice president for consequence management for James Lee Witt Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis management and disaster planning firm, Sachs has been working closely over the past year with government officials and others in Haiti to develop a nationwide disaster preparedness program. The program, tied to the Clinton Global Initiative, was still in the planning stages when last week’s earthquake struck.
The disaster preparedness program is loosely based on the Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, model, which was developed and implemented by the Los Angeles City Fire Department in California following the Whittier Narrows earthquake of 1987.
“The idea is to give training for citizens on what to expect in a disaster, how to keep their families and neighborhoods safe. We want to give them the training and the basic tools they need to become part of the response effort in a safe and effective way,” Sachs said. Women play an essential role in the CERT model adapted for Haiti, he said,.
But the fledgling disaster preparedness plan came crashing down in last week’s catastrophic earthquake, and now James Lee Witt Associates — founded in 2001 by former Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt — is reassessing and expanding its role in the ravaged country.
Sachs worked under Witt at FEMA before moving to Maine in 1999 to try his hand at municipal governance. Witt wooed him back to disaster planning and mitigation in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.
Haiti is his greatest challenge to date, Sachs said this week.
And Sachs knows what he’s talking about. He has worked on the ground in large-scale disasters such as the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Southern California, the 2005 flooding in Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, and in 2008 Hurricane Ike in Louisiana and Texas. The magnitude and complexity of the crisis in Haiti dwarfs these other experiences, he said.
“People do not realize how few resources and how little capability the Haitian government has to work with,” said Sachs, who has made several trips to Haiti. “That’s part of why we’re seeing what we’re seeing on television right now. There essentially is no response system in place.”
The crisis is made worse by the absence of a functional infrastructure of roads, electrical power, communications, hospitals and public safety resources, he said.
“Prior to this earthquake, there were only two fire stations in the entire country,” Sachs pointed out. “In addition, many of the trucks and vehicles available for emergency response and the distribution of supplies are unusable — people have no mechanical training, and there are no parts available to maintain them.”
Since last week’s earthquake, James Lee Witt Associates has already contracted to provide support and coordination to the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is heading up the international response in Haiti. The company also will continue in its long-term commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative with a focus on developing a coordinated and sustainable approach to helping Haiti emerge as an independent democracy, Sachs said Thursday.
While the immediate effort under way is to provide food, shelter and medical care to the millions of Haitians affected by last week’s earthquake, Sachs said Haiti must also adopt a big-picture view of its own future, including establishing and enforcing building codes appropriate for its location and developing a strong internal infrastructure.
“This is a country that was founded in slavery, endured under a system of strongman leaders, and only recently obtained its voice as a democracy,” he said. “It is hard to break patterns that have evolved over a couple of hundred years.”
Now, while much of Haiti lies in ruins, is the time to lay the foundations of the future, he said.
“If you don’t try now, there won’t be another opportunity like this for another 200 years,” he said.
Sachs, who lives in Freeport with his wife, Melanie, and their two young children, spent time early this week in meetings in Washington, D.C., and New York City, but was home in time to celebrate the ninth birthday of his son, Peter. He expects to be back on the ground in Port-au-Prince within a week for an indefinite length of time — weeks, at least. Months, probably — working seven days a week, 16 hours a day.
Sachs, who has admitted to being something of an “adrenaline junkie,” said Thursday that his job is demanding and sometimes strains family relations. Back in 2005, for example, he missed Peter’s fifth birthday while on leave from his job in Brewer, serving in post-Katrina Louisiana.
But the work suits him, Sachs said.
“You can’t do this work and not like it,” he said. “There are a lot of sacrifices, but there are very few jobs that give you such a strong sense of helping people when they’re probably at the lowest point in their lives. … The jobs I’ve been the most happy in are the ones where I can see the tangible results of what I do in short order. Emergency management does that for me.”