In the past couple days there have been some incredible videos of miraculous rescues from the rubble in Haiti. People who have been trapped up to six days have been found alive.  Consider this amazing video from CNN. 

 

How can people have survived in the rubble this long?  The answer may have something to so with the architecture of Port au Prince —  specifically, the use of certain building materials in structures across the city. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Lauria the UN’s top humanitarian official John Holmes explains how a quick international response and simple physics have kept people alive for this long.   

WSJ: What happened in the first few hours after the quake?

Sir John: We have a system that goes into action immediately, because in Geneva we are alerted by the seismologists that an earthquake of this size has happened. Then immediately, before you speak to anybody, our system in Geneva starts to think about who have we got in the area, what sort of team do we need, how big should it be.

 If it happens where there is a reasonably organized government, then you wait for the government to ask for international help. In this case, it was clear the Haitian government had been knocked sideways completely, not least because all their communications were down. So we just got on with it.

So two things happened: automatic alerts go out to all the international search and rescue teams with whom we work, telling them to mobilize. And then separately we start assembling the U.N. early assessment teams, because they need to be the first people on the spot. In this case, we had a 14-man team [to coordinate the rescue teams], much bigger than usual, normally there are five or six. The first few were on the ground in 24 hours and the full 14 within 36 hours. Each [rescue] team can do what they like, but they recognize the need for coordination and it works pretty well.

The search and rescue has been a fantastic success this time. They’ve pulled out more people than is normally the case. Partly because they got their early, the weather and the nature of some of the buildings: collapsed pre-pressed concrete slabs, which tend to leave gaps when it crashes down. It crushes some people horribly, but it can leave gaps for people to survive miraculously.

The entire interview is a must-read.

UPDATE: At the United Nations Foundation this afternoon, Holmes briefed the Washington, D.C. press via teleconference.  Holmes describes the panopoly of humanitarian challenges facing Haiti. Of particular note is how Holmes describes the various roles played by the United States and UN agencies.  As Holmes explains, the United States and UN are working very closely on a number of issues, from security to facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid.   The entire 30 minute briefing is worth a listen.  

 

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