The Need To Respond

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When a humanitarian crisis takes place somewhere in the world, many of us are overtaken with compassion and emotion. From tsunamis in Asia, to earthquakes in China and Chile, New Yorkers rush to help. We feel an aching need to respond.

And we do.  As a Downtown community, our own harrowing, first-hand experience on 9/11 compels us to understand, and to act—to share resources and be useful. Mostly, we know how crucial it is to open our wallets along with our hearts.  Yet some of us long to respond more personally.

But how can we, when often these events are talking place halfway around the world?

I got a chance recently to go outside my own usual response, immediately after the earthquake in Haiti.  The terrors of that disaster—the sheer numbers of those in need and the crushing collapse of nearly an entire city—tore at New Yorkers, in no small part because Haitian neighbors and colleagues are such a vital part of our own metropolis.

I confess that my work for an international relief and development agency, Mercy Corps, puts me slightly closer to crisis response than others might be. Mercy Corps is an experienced first responder to humanitarian disasters globally, and it was on the move toward Haiti hours after the quake.  (We have been active in humanitarian relief for close to 40 years, and we currently work in more than 40 of the world’s most fragile physical and political environments.)

As Executive Director of Mercy Corps’ Action Center to End World Hunger,  a still-new, interactive public education and exhibition space in Battery Park City, I knew our crisis teams were assembling.  But usually the most we can do in NYC is present the work of our disaster-response colleagues through public and education programs.

This time was different.  Mercy Corps’ leading sanitation and water specialist, Mugur Dumitrache, was passing through Kennedy airport en route to Haiti, and he urgently needed supplies that would enable the broader staff to hit the ground running in Port au Prince.

What do first responders focused on water and sanitation need?  Simple: A dozen water purification systems.  Chemical tablets for the purification process.  Refills and backups and different types of equipment.  They need computer cables and batteries for the machines they will use when power is restored in the capital.  And not knowing the viability of local roads, they need worldwide computerized trail maps to help them reach the most isolated of those in need.

Working with an Action Center team, we had less than a day to pull these life-saving supplies together so that Mugur could take them with him on the next leg of his journey.  I was told by global staff that the trail maps would be hard to find, as would sufficient quantities of water purification materials. We hit the phones.

To our surprise and delight, much could be found right here in Lower Manhattan. Very happily, Tents and Trails, our Downtown neighbor, was able to supply a tremendous amount of what we needed.  And when staff there heard what we were assembling, they threw in other crucial items not even requested—gratis!—including bug repellent and additional water-supply materials.  Our neighborhood camping/mountain/hiking store could not have been more competent, responsive, attentive or well-stocked.  They even gave us a discount!

Working with that store, and others in our community, my colleagues and I were exhilarated at being able to respond to the crisis in a direct, impactful and personal way.

Those first frightening days of crisis response are behind Haiti now. The longer—and equally tough—work of reconstruction and economic and community rebuilding is now in full swing. Mercy Corps will work in Haiti for a long time, striving to help Haitians build a safe, productive and just country out of the rubble of the earthquake.  And we at the Action Center continue to search out ways we can work meaningfully in this rebuilding.

One way is by presenting public programs on the unfolding story in Haiti to the Lower Manhattan community—explaining the country’s progress as well as its crushing needs.

In a future blog post, I’ll tell you more about these aspects, and I will also detail an amazing and promising grassroots response brewing in our community through the newly formed Downtown NY Coalition for Haiti.  The coalition was created by people who want to become, and remain, directly involved in Haiti’s reconstruction. This is 9/11’s community relating to another community in need.  Stay tuned for the update.

Robert F. Sherman

Executive Director, Action Center to End World Hunger