Washington Demands and Disaster Assistance: USAID and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake
Lewis Lucke was called out of retirement in 2010 to coordinate USAID’s response to the disastrous 7.0 magnitude Haitian earthquake, which killed an estimated 100,000 people and dealt a devastating blow to a country still reeling from political instability and the aftermath of a military coup. Lucke found bodies in the street and mountains of rubble, a “magnificent” U.S. military response and a persistent challenge in meeting Washington’s incessant demands for information. “At one point, it seemed that my bosses in Washington felt my main job was to prepare powerpoint presentations so they could show them to Obama,” Lucke recalled. “I told them if that was what they thought was my job, that I would quit right now and be gone.” Ex-President Clinton also visited Haiti during Lucke’s three-month assignment there. At an airport meeting, Clinton “told me he could bring in thousands of tents from Bangladesh, I think it was,” Lucke said. “I gave him the ‘tarp vs tent’ speech and politely told him to please NOT bring us any more tents.”
Lucke remained in Haiti for three backbreaking months, joining forces with the UN, a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) from USAID, a multitude of NGOs, and thousands of volunteers. He found Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, almost completely destroyed. “The Presidential palace was a beautiful building,” he recalled, “but most of it was now collapsed and had to be bulldozed away as rubble.” Another major blow was the destruction of the headquarters of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, killing the Mission’s chief and 95 other UN personnel. This severely handicapped the UN’s capacity for emergency response.
Lucke had previously served as USAID Mission Director in Haiti, and was an obvious choice to coordinate the agency’s response to the earthquake. When the call came to return to Haiti, Lucke was preparing to return after an illustrious career that had taken him to Mali, Senegal, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Jordan, Haiti, Iraq after the Second Gulf War, and an Ambassadorship in Swaziland.
Drafted by Sabrina Rostkowski
Lewis Lucke’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber beginning November 16, 2016.
Read Lewis Lucke’s full oral history HERE.
“Literally, there were bodies in the street and mountains of rubble to deal with.”
Filling the Gaps, Assessing the Damage: It was absolute chaos and pandemonium. Literally, there were bodies in the street and mountains of rubble to deal with. We had to figure out who we had to work with. We also had to deal with the fact that everyone was very much impacted by the earthquake.
Many of the top people in the UN in Haiti were killed. The US military had to fill in a lot of gaps but at the same time we had to operate as part of an international operation and give respect and deference to the Haitians. We had realized that we had to work with a Haitian government that was not particularly well functioning even in the best of times but that had lost key people in the earthquake. We had to deal with a UN organization that had also been decimated by the earthquake and it was the UN that was supposed to be the lead organization when a disaster of this nature happens. They are the ones who are supposed to be the lead organizers but they had lost people and couldn’t therefore fully play that role at the beginning. So we had to be sensitive to all the damaged and injured partners and try to fill in the gaps where we could with our experts, either military or civilian.
It was complete and utter chaos to start with but every day it got a little bit better. We were flooded with a zillion requests every day—send a helicopter to this orphanage, take water to this place; something terrible has happened here, get security for another place and so forth. A thousand things were going on simultaneously. We were also flooded with thousands of volunteers wanting to help. Our best asset, of course, was the US military with all their equipment, helicopters and various skill sets. I was incredibly grateful every day for the military and their amazing capabilities.
After dealing with the bodies, we had to assess the water, food and medical situation and that was the task of the DART for us. It became clear that there wasn’t much of a water or food shortage but rather a distribution issue. We had to deal with port problems and basically brought in an artificial port in the form of a large barge from a U.S. company. That helped the delivery of food, medical assistance and water in the early days. And then we had to manage distribution, deal with logistical logjams and solve a thousand problems happening all around.
Let me say that shelter became one of the premier issues for relief, after you take care of the food water, and medicine portioning. So many Haitians suffered from inadequate housing in the best of times but it became a severe issue after the earthquake. Tent cities sprang all over the earthquake zone as so many homes were either destroyed or damaged to the point where people were afraid to live in them. It became clear that we had to begin the shelter issue. This was an international effort, not just USAID of course, so the international effort began to focus on shelter via the provision and distribution of thousands of tarps, as opposed to tents. Tarps are a lot better than tents because tents tear, fly away and eventually, rot.
I had a conversation with President Clinton about this at the airport. He told me he could bring in thousands of tents from Bangladesh, I think it was. I gave him the “tarp vs tent” speech and politely told him to please NOT bring us any more tents.
“I literally had key staff passing out from exhaustion on the floor, including some doctors.”
Dealing with Challenges: Actually, part of the challenge had nothing to do with us or Haiti, but rather dealing with Washington. This was early in the Obama Administration and their tendency was to try to over manage or micromanage everything from Washington, which is impossible to do anyway and made our lives more complicated. At one point, it seemed that my bosses in Washington felt my main job was to prepare powerpoint presentations so they could show them to Obama. I told them if that was what they thought was my job, that I would quit right now and be gone. For God’s sake, we were still pulling bodies out of buildings and saving lives. Please let us do our job.
The USAID group got a few more qualified people over time, but the pace was killing us: I had people literally dropping from exhaustion and it happened frequently. People were working 20 hours a day and under great pressure. After a while, you just fall apart. I would tell folks that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and to take care of yourself. You are not going to be effective if you don’t get a little bit of rest. I found that I was not particularly good at taking my own advice and I came close to falling apart physically myself. I literally had key staff passing out from exhaustion on the floor, including some doctors. Working in those conditions was very hard but people were very dedicated to the task at hand and the work got done. Again, I was grateful for such a dedicated group of people who could accomplish so much under difficult circumstances.
“Anyway, we had the priority of the day or the priority of the week or the priority of the month. We identified them and tried to get them done as quickly as we could.”
Three Months Later: The military had started to draw down its deployment and the hospital ship, the USS Hope, had left the area. The military assets were fewer in number because they were not as needed. Distribution points for food were well established and did not have to be guarded to the extent that they had been before. Everything was sort of falling into place for a more controllable relief situation. There was never really a problem about the availability of food. It was a question of distribution of food, because there was plenty of food available locally. One of the cardinal rules of development is “do no harm,” so we didn’t want to keep food or water distribution at the expense of the private sector markets. Agriculture in Haiti had been very negatively affected by US policies under the Clinton Administration so we didn’t want to make it any worse. We did what we needed to do to assure food, water and medicine right after the earthquake but there was no need to do it forever or even past the immediate emergency phase. But things were getting a bit back to normal in terms of imports and exports functioning. Some of the local economy was coming back to life but so many people were living in temporary shelters and there was a huge task ahead of starting to clear away some of the rubble–a process that would take a few years. Rubble was slowly being moved to a landfill outside Port Au Prince. Another priority for us after getting the tarps distributed was to unclog all of the canals in Port au Prince that had been filled with rubble and garbage. That was an urgent undertaking because once rainy season started, there would have been floods which would have been another disaster. So, we got that done. Anyway, we had the priority of the day or the priority of the week or the priority of the month. We identified them and tried to get them done as quickly as we could.
It turned more into stabilization. The Embassy was getting back to normal and we slowly drew down our numbers. The emergency response and rescue teams closed shop, packed up and went home. They had done an amazing job. Things were returning to, I certainly wouldn’t say, to normal. In fact, I was back there just a few weeks ago working on hurricane relief and there were still a few people living in tents outside town, but not many, thankfully. The rubble has mostly been removed as well.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in Global Studies and French, UNC Chapel Hill 1970-1974
MBA, Thunderbird School of Global Management 1976-1977
Joined the Foreign Service 1978
Amman, Jordan—Mission Director, USAID 1996-2000
Port-au-Prince, Haiti—Mission Director, USAID 2000-2001
Baghdad, Iraq—Reconstruction Coordinator, USAID 2002-2004
Port-au-Prince, Haiti—Head of USAID Earthquake Response 2010