March 14, 2010

Our View: Haiti relief ship left to drift by U.S. government

It was ‘mission accomplished’ for the Sea Hunter, but others could have done more.

You might dismiss it – and some have – as a fool’s errand. You might praise it – and you should – as a noble and courageous mission of mercy.

However any of us saw it and whatever each of us thought of it, the much-delayed, much-maligned, much-obstructed Haitian voyage of the Maine ship Sea Hunter finally ended last week. And now, six weeks after getting under way from Portland Harbor, the Sea Hunter’s owner and crew can say, with pride and without contradiction: mission accomplished!

Expertly chronicled from start to finish by Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram columnist Bill Nemitz aboard the Sea Hunter, the ship’s journey to deliver relief supplies to victims of Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake was hindered by weather, bureaucracy, potential thievery and just plain bad luck. There were times when shipowner Greg Brooks of Gorham surely must have thought the voyage was doomed; but he and his crew sailed on, never losing hope that they could achieve what they set out to do.

“It took all of us to do it,” Brooks told Nemitz as the ship’s cargo was being offloaded in Haitian waters. “But it’s done.”

And now that it’s done, it’s time to ask some questions. First and foremost, where were top officials of the U.S. government while Brooks and his crew were fighting off American bureaucrats in U.S. waters and, later, once they reached their destination, Haitian bureaucrats – and worse?

After battling coastal storms from Portland to Miami, the Sea Hunter was stalled for 12 days by a Coast Guard “hold order” that was lifted only when Brooks secured the services of a shipmaster who met the government’s licensing requirements.

BRICK WALL

Off the coast of Haiti, the Sea Hunter sailed straight into the brick wall known as the Haitian government – an obstruction Nemitz succinctly described as “a maze of inefficiency, miscommunication and what at times looked to these eyes like outright corruption.”

To be sure, members of Maine’s congressional delegation offered what assistance they could behind the scenes, and 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree was especially helpful when the Sea Hunter encountered problems in Miami.

In Nemitz’s estimation, Pingree’s “contacts with the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs in Miami made a significant difference.”
But as far as we know, the biggest guns in D.C. stood silent as the Sea Hunter endured its travails.

Two ex-presidents of the United States have been heading up the international relief campaign for Haitian earthquake victims; surely, the U.S. government is aware of the red tape, ineptitude and sometimes flat-out criminal interference that anyone trying to deliver aid is likely to encounter in and around Haiti.

Surely, U.S. officials were aware of the difficulties that stymied the Sea Hunter’s heroic effort to offload its cargo – an estimated 200 tons of food, clothing, medicine and other supplies donated by residents of Maine and elsewhere in the generous and sincere belief that the donations would reach their intended destination.

WHERE WAS OBAMA?

We know for a fact that Maine’s two U.S. senators are in regular communication with no less a government big shot than the president of the United States. We’re guessing, of course, but it seems reasonable to surmise that word might have filtered up to the White House that aides to Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins were doing their best to help a contingent of selfless seafarers who were having trouble completing their humanitarian expedition.

President Obama is renowned for involving himself in everything from local law enforcement issues to college football rankings – all part of his portfolio as president, he believes – so couldn’t he have picked up the phone and let the Haitians know that he was not happy about their treatment of Greg Brooks and his crew?

If nothing else, the Obama administration should take steps now to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. Haiti has many problems, the devastating January earthquake being just the most recent and most tragic. If Haiti wants the United States to keep sending help when Haitians are in need, the least Haiti can do is welcome the helpers with open arms.

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