Haiti Recovery Effort Draws on Lessons From 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami

The effort to help Haiti recover from its devastating earthquake can draw on lessons learned in other large-scale tragedies, particularly the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed at least 230,000 people across a dozen countries, rescue officials say.

The same scenes of bodies littering the ground or stacked along roadways in Haiti are flashbacks to the tsunami devastation, but Bakri Beck, who headed relief activities in Indonesia's devastated Banda Aceh province — where 167,000 people died from the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami — said saving survivors must remain the priority.

"One of the things that is clearly happening this time around in Haiti ... is a focus on trying to apply lessons from previous emergencies," said Ben Ramalingam, head of Research and Development for London-based Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action. "This time around, there is much more of a focus on what could be done better, what could be learned at the outset."

Connecticut-based AmeriCares provided more than $45 million in aid for tsunami survivors, and is now in Haiti distributing more than $6 million worth of medical aid.

"Certainly, we learned a lot of lessons from the tsunami," said Christoph Gorder, the group's vice president of Emergency Response. "Our response team is better organized and trained. Our capacity to manage a very large number of moving pieces is better. This means we are quicker to respond to offers of help — everything from supplies to planes — and requests for assistance.

"I feel like we are handling a similar volume of activity as the tsunami, but with much more efficiency," he said.

Ramalingam said a key lesson is that aid agencies need to spend as much time planning as they do carrying out operations.

"There were some notable innovations in the tsunami response, which were scaled up in ways not seen before, for example, the use of cash as an alternative to food saw its widest application," he said.

Gorder said he believed at this stage aid operations in Haiti were running more efficiently than at the same point after the tsunami.

"Despite the frustrations, I believe that there are significantly more assets on the ground and people being helped in Haiti today than at this juncture in the tsunami response," he said.

During the tsunami, initial fears ran high over potential violence erupting in Banda Aceh with three decades of fighting between government forces and separatist rebels. But those worries quickly dissipated after foreign aid agencies were greeted by a peaceful mood, with victims bonding together.

In Haiti, tensions are rising with reports of machete-wielding looters, prowling street gangs and gunshot victims seeking medical treatment.

Graham Tardif, who heads World Vision's disaster relief efforts, said security has been a concern in Haiti.

"We haven't experienced anything like Haiti around the security issue," Tardif said. "With such a history, you think Haiti and you think that the level of lawlessness is just under the surface."

Ramalingam said there is no perfect process in handling such disasters, but past efforts have helped prepare relief workers for the situation in Haiti.

"The lessons from previous earthquakes are clear, as are those from the tsunami, but it is going to take collective and coordinated effort to apply them in the Haitian context," he said.