Since the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti much attention has been given to the neglected country, known as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
The Miami University community has hosted several benefits and fundraisers with numerous organizations in effort to build awareness and support for the Haitian people. Kenneth Merten, United States Ambassador to Haiti and 1983 Miami alumnus, experienced first hand the disastrous earthquake that devastated the country, and his job has since accelerated.
When the earthquake hit, Merten had just arrived home with his family and guests from the U.S. He said he was hosting a reception when the ground suddenly began to tremble.
“The ground was shaking to such an extent that it was very hard to hold your balance, Merten said. “The house was literally shaking back and forth. I was screaming out for my wife and daughters, who were still upstairs inside the house … I remember running around to the back of the house. I used to be able to see the view of Hotel Montana, but I only saw dust where it stood. There were huge clouds of dust coming from the valley. So many people were screaming and shouting.”
Merten was appointed as Ambassador to Haiti in August 2009. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice first nominated him during the transitory state of re-election and he had to be reselected by the new presidential administration.
As Ambassador to Haiti, it is Merten’s job is to be the president’s representative to the Haitian government.
“That means I am responsible for our relation with Haiti, whether that is economical, political or social,” Merten said. “That means I have to be familiar with the country and decision makers to brief people about what is going on there. I tell them what they need to know and decisions to make on what the government should be doing.”
As the U.S.’s representative, Merten is also responsible for looking after American citizens living in Haiti.
Merten said 40,000 to 45,000 American citizens lived in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. Since then more than 15,000 have evacuated.
“There has been a huge amount of interest in what is going on here,” Merten said. “The day after, President Barack Obama called to hear about how the people were doing and to hear my assessment of the damage. There has been a huge amount of media interest. There are a lot of folks down here from almost every agency here. I have to understand what they are doing here and what they can contribute.”
However, Merten has hope for the country and its opportunities. His job now is to help the U.S. government, the Haitian government, and nonprofit organizations rebuilt Haiti and recover the lost.
“There is going to be a lot of work and opportunity,” Merten said. “There’s a lot of money coming here and good will. This is a way for a fresh start. I think the Haitian people have been incredibly admirable. I have the utmost respect for the dignity, patience and good spirits in which they have dealt with this crisis. Everything is damaged.”
As a community, Miami has taken many steps to addressing Haiti’s crisis.
Sophomore Megumi Sugita, president of the on-campus organization UNICEF said, “We know Haiti needs money most right now. Everything they are doing now is taking care of people, and to get that done we need to raise money for them.”
Sugita said UNICEF sets up tables at the Shriver Center and other campus events to collect donations.
“It’s hard to say if the Haitian government can fix its problems,” said sophomore Tim Model, a diplomacy and foreign affairs major. “This is the worst that can happen. They need to get together and realize what is good and bad, mainly what can be improved. First, Haiti needs to fix its government. Second, they need to use the world’s aid properly. Third, the government needs to focus on the population and rebuilding homes. Haiti could have a chance.”
Merten said he encourages Miami to get involved with well-known organizations to raise money for the country.
“Don’t hop on a plane and come see what to do, because there are literally no places for people to stay,” Merten said. “Do what they can to raise money and make sure people do not forget this even in the next 3 to 5 months.”