Fighting compassion fatigue in Haiti and New Orleans
By Qina Liu
First there are the news reports, projecting the dilapidated houses, the masses of human suffering and recent wreckage. Then, there are the floods of information on benefit concerts, charities and what the average person can do to help. After a week, a month or a year, this disaster is replaced by the next large instance of human pain, the next biggest fad or the next breaking news story. This cycle seems to be what happened in the years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 28, 2005. One wonders if the same will be true for the recent 7.0 magnitude Haiti earthquake.
“People are just going to lose interest in this as a story,” CNN anchor Anderson Cooper predicted in a New York Times article about the Haiti earthquake. “They’re going to stop watching.’’
Cooper was describing a phenomenon known as compassion fatigue. Watching the same images again and again, people become desensitized. People stop caring.
Perhaps that is what happened to New Orleans. After images of flooded streets and houses of rubble left the television sets in our homes, effects of Hurricane Katrina disappeared from the national consciousness along with them.
Although many people no longer discuss Hurricane Katrina, the reality of the devastation continues in New Orleans. For Joyeta Basu, an Ithaca College senior who traveled to New Orleans this past January, the fact that the surrounding area was still touched by Katrina after five years was most jarring.
“There would be houses that would be completely destroyed right next to foundation that was remnants of a house sometime in the past, and it basically looked like the destruction that they showed by the news when it was on TV,” Basu said. “You would think that after so many years, things would have gotten a lot better.”
Yet for many New Orleans victims living in the 7th and 9th Wards, that is certainly not the case. When the levees broke after Katrina, so did their lifeline.
“They are stuck in 2005, where it’s like the day after the news for them,” Basu said. “There are some areas, like the French Quarter and the Gardens District, those people, their lives have gone on, but for the people in the 7th Ward and the 9th Ward, they are stuck in time.”
While many lost their homes, lives and livelihoods to Katrina and are still paying the price, the commercial and tourist attractions of New Orleans were restored just in time for Mardi Gras. New Orleans is facing a tale of two cities, but unlike the Charles Dickens novel, the aftermath of Katrina is not a made up story. This is the story of their lives.
“I think there is still a story to be told in the fact that things are not back to the place that they should be at this point,” said Matthew Wright, an Ithaca College senior who went to New Orleans with Basu and other students. Helping rebuild the houses of Katrina victims, Wright was moved by stories the victims told. One woman told him she never expected to be homeless, but she was forced out of her home when Katrina struck.
Similarly, while New Orleans is still rebuilding from the wreckage almost five years after the hurricane hit their shores, for the people of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, recovery seems to have no end.
“They suffered one of the worst natural disasters in human history, and it happened in a country that had no resources to cope with it,” said freshman Stephen Burke, president of the newly founded Ithaca College Haiti Relief Effort. “I mean, the biggest thing people will compare it to is Hurricane Katrina.”
But the effects of the Haiti earthquake are bigger than the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Compared to the thousands of deaths from the hurricane, there are estimates of more than 200,000 deaths from the earthquake. Moreover, compared to a country like the United States, Haiti does not have the same infrastructure or relief capabilities, Burke said. According to the CIA, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80 percent of the population living under the poverty line and 54 percent in abject poverty. The United Nations also lists Haiti as one of the 50 poorest and least developed nations in the world.
“I think what I would like to see [people] do is just to help out more, realize the devastation occurred and to make it more apparent that we need to help Haiti even though they are so far away from us,” said Pascale Florestal, an Ithaca College freshman who has family in Haiti. “They need as much help as we would if it was our problem.”
The U.S. Government certainly recognizes the need to help Haiti. Upon a request from President Obama, former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush started the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to raise money and provide relief for the earthquake victims. Meanwhile, celebrities, such as Justin Bieber, Jennifer Hudson, Josh Groban, Kanye West and Janet Jackson, banded together in Los Angeles to remake Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s 1985 hit “We Are the World,” to raise awareness about Haiti. Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift and Madonna also performed for a Hope for Haiti concert telethon to encourage people to donate.
Despite the severity of the earthquake in Haiti, some people have questioned where the U.S. should be focusing aid. A Feb. 5 editorial in The Washington Times pointed out that while the U.S. Government has a duty to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, the government does not owe Haiti anything.
“I feel like it is the same argument that people have about the wars we are involved in: Should we be working on things here at home that really need to be helped, or should we be doing things for other countries?” IC senior Matthew Wright said. He added that while people should worry about issues at home, there is also a need to deal with issues abroad.
Others feel a stronger responsibility to their home country.
“As a person, I feel like I owe more to New Orleans,” Basu said. “When you go down there, you just feel compelled to do something.“
For those who cannot go to New Orleans, the footage presented in Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s award-winning documentary Trouble the Water conveys some of the devastation. The documentary depicts the lack of government aid in money and evacuation.
“The levees breaking were foul play,” producer Tia Lessin said in a Sept. 15, 2009, Q&A session at Ithaca College following the documentary’s screening. “[The government] knew for years that the levees in New Orleans were vulnerable.”
Whatever the reasons, 1,836 lives were lost to the hurricane.
Despite the tragedies that Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake presented, without the media’s spotlight on disaster, perhaps people wouldn’t be so inclined to help. While Haiti is a nation of immense poverty, donations to the country were not very prevalent before the earthquake. Likewise, this might explain the current outpouring of humanitarian efforts to help Haiti, while New Orleans lies forgotten.
“It is easy to see why Americans would forget about it if you’re not living there, but there is certainly a need that still exists there,” Wright said. “I think the people that were there started to realize that they can’t wait for government to house them.”
This attitude has lead people like Tia Lessin to spread awareness.
“What we tried to do with our film was not only tell a story about Katrina, but about poverty long before the levees broke, about people who had been abandoned by their government,” Lessin said.
Considering the tendency for the public to abandon a cause before the work is done, some people are trying to organize long-term humanitarian efforts to help Haiti. Ithaca College has started an organization to raise funds for Haiti, planning a benefit concert in April.
“We don’t want this to be something like ‘Okay, February is done. Moving on to the next issue or next tragedy that’s out there,’” said Deborah Mohlenhoff, IC’s assistant director of community service leadership development and City of Ithaca Common Council member. “This is going to take a very long time.”
Stephen Burke, who has worked with raising funds to counteract genocide in Darfur, also argues for persistent humanitarian efforts.
“Even though celebrities may be done hosting concerts for Haiti and hosting events, we need to keep raising money and awareness about the country because it’s not going away for years, maybe even decades,” Burke said.
So while the faces of victims and piles of rubble may disappear from the television sets, their stories do not end. There is no quick fix to repairing a city or a country destroyed by natural disasters. There are no fairy godmothers that can save the day with a swish of their magic wands. Rebuilding takes time.
While the floods, storms, tsunamis and earthquakes have graced countless television sets and American homes, the victims of these natural disasters cannot turn off the stories with a click of a remote. For many, these disasters color every aspect of their lives. After all, as media people soon learn, news comes and goes, but for the sake of the disaster victims, one must adopt Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s mantra: “Never shall I forget.” To prevent helping humanity from being a fad, people need to learn and remember, but most of all, people need to care.
Qina Liu is a freshman journalism major who rooted for the Saints in the Super Bowl. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.