Following TEAM RUBICON in Haiti – critique of aid

Team Rubicon is a self-financed and self-deployed group of former Marines, soldiers firefighters, Jesuits, health care professionals currently providing emergency relief in Haiti.  They provide their own security and deal with whatever they find.

UPDATE 28 Jan:

Team Rubicon’s founder offers some trenchant observations about what is going on with aid delivery in Haiti.

This could add a useful perspective if you have been following the media coverage or know anyone involved there in the media, NGOs, or the military.

My emphases and comments.

I would like to take a moment and clarify our position on criticizing three entities operating in Haiti.

1. Media
Team Rubicon feels that national media played a role in delaying aid organizations from conducting their mission due to a flurry of sensationalist journalism. Many major networks overplayed the security situation on the ground without any true knowledge, this led to risk-averse NGOs ceasing or delaying the deployment of doctors and the delivery of food and water. Many media personalities witnessed mobs of people only because they were a white face surrounded by camera crews sucking down bottles of water, essentially creating slightly unstable situation on a small scale. The media needs to understand the dynamic on the ground and have their crews operate in a more incognito manner. David Ono, from ABC 7, did this perfectly, traveling in a simple vehicle with only one cameraman, never announcing his presence. Conversely, Jesse Jackson had a large entourage of well dressed individuals and multiple cameramen. This caused a scene and could have led to unrest. [Always ready to help!]

While we feel, as stated above, that the media did contribute to the problem, [However…] they also were an invaluable tool in bringing aid to the disaster. [There is always a flip side.] The 24 hour news coverage facilitated donations from around the world, providing a much needed influx of capital to major relief organizations. Additionally, they served as a platform for teams, such as Team Rubicon, to bring to light situations that needed immediate attention. For example, while Team Rubicon was running (yes, running) the Emergency Room of General Hospital in PaP, it took a combination of Dr. Griswell’s interview with Anderson Cooper and my interruption of Jesse Jackson’s interview with CNN [Excellent… I didn’t see that.  I wonder if it was youtubed.] to facilitate the UN’s release of doctors being held at the US Embassy and the delivery of desperately needed food and water. Numerous newspapers around the country caught wind of our story and helped fuel the increase in "self deployers" who chose to come to Haiti against the wishes of the Red Cross and other NGOs. Finally, David Ono and ABC 7’s three part series on our efforts flooded our budget with donations, making Team Rubicon a viable disaster response team for future catastrophes.  [And remember Hugh Hewitt’s talk radio efforts.]

2. Large Aid Organizations/NGOs
Team Rubicon has been very critical of large aid groups such as the Red Cross, and for good reason. We feel that these organizations evaluated the situation on the ground and opted to accept a "zero risk" policy. Meaning that since the security situation, while stable, was potentially hazardous, they opted not to put the full force of their ability into play from the moment they arrived. We came across numerous doctors who complained of being "imprisoned" at the airport and embassies, unable to leave unless they had an armed NGO detail pick them up. Team Rubicon believes that, first, a thorough risk assessment must be done, then risks must be mitigated when possible, and finally, disaster teams must be willing to assume a certain remaining level of inherent risk. If this is not done, time is lost. And when time is lost, people die.

However, Team Rubicon understands fully the powerful ability of large NGOs such as the Red Cross. These organizations have significant funding, logistical capabilities, and experience in disaster relief. That being said, they also have a lot of bureaucracy and red tape, and it takes time for them to get up and running. Team Rubicon believes that it has the ability to "bridge the gap" between when disasters happen and when large NGOs can mobilize, organize and act. Once these large entities have their inertia moving, it is time for Team Rubicon to step aside and let the big boys play. Once this transition takes place, there is no one better to conduct disaster relief.  [A good observation.  You have to understand your limitations.]

3. Military
Team Rubicon includes many former military personnel on its teams. Because of this, we are very aware of the awesome capabilities, as well as the debilitating limitations of the military model. First, the negative. The US military responded quickly and was on the ground shortly after Rubicon arrived. However, from our perspective they did a poor job of coordinating with the logistical parties of large NGOs. What resulted was a company of 82nd Airborne soldiers protecting the General Hospital. This company was making logistics runs multiple times a day to supply its soldiers, but at no point did they think to utilize their armed convoys to help the Red Cross bring in food, water, medicine and doctors to the patients dying there. It took our own former SF medic Mark Heyward grabbing a Colonel and saying, "Listen, sir, I have a few things I need to tell you about the situation here." Within, two hours, convoys of troops were arriving, guiding in busloads of doctors and truckloads of supplies. Another problem, which has been discussed at length on this blog, was the military’s closed-minded thinking with regard to our own supplies. I won’t discuss the actions of a particular Army Major further, but her actions display the "power trip/ my war or the highway attitude" common in the military. Additionally, it took the Army too long to push out squad sized patrols, bolstered with doctors, into the local neighborhoods to conduct field triages. This was essentially what Team Rubicon was doing, but without the full might of the US military behind us.

Now for the positive. As I stated, the military arrived fast, that’s a plus. We also had many positive interactions with lower lever leadership. [Big surprise there, right?  Some things are the same the world over, in every age, in every organization.]  I spent a lot of time at General Hospital liaising with a company commander and his first sergeant, developing plans to provide shelter, as well as enlisting the help of his men to move patients. Second, the Army patrols we did encounter later in the weeks were willing to conduct side-by-side operations with us to facilitate better evacuations for wounded (we took the lead on that). I also ran into an Army captain willing to "secure" us a tent that a British SAR team was leaving behind. Perhaps the best thing I saw can be relayed in the following story. When the General Hospital building was finally cleared to be re-entered following the 6.1 aftershock, we had hundreds of critical patients who had been roasting in the sun all day and needed to be moved inside FAST. At that same moment, a convoy of Army trucks was entering the gated compound (facilitated by Mark’s ‘discussion’ with the Colonel). I walked up to a captain and said, "Sir, I need your men to help us move these patients inside. I suggest you have your men drop their gear and find me, I will be determining the order of importance for patients." He immediately turned to a truck and shouted for the men inside to begin stripping gear. Those men hopped out and walked towards me, ready to take my orders. A quick glance at their uniforms and I realized I was looking at one Lt. Colonel, two majors, a captain, one sergeant major and two first sergeants. Basically a "who’s who" in the 82nd Airborne Brigade. I pointed to the four highest ranking and said, "you, you, you and you, grab that patient over there and take her inside." I expected some incredulous looks because of my appearance and apparent age, but, to the man, the nodded their head and said, "you got it." It was that willingness to do what it takes that reinforced my respect for my military brothers.  [Fantastic.  And a lesson to leadership in every organization, especially Holy Church.]

Jake Wood, Team Rubicon Co-Founder

In the meantime, yesterday one group of Team Rubicon treated 200 people, including in the parking lot of a church where funerals were going on.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Laurinda1230 says:

    Wow, this group is amazing. Thank you, Father, for making us aware of this great organization and their efforts to serve those in Haiti. God Bless them!

  2. EXCHIEF says:

    Team Rubicon deserves praise for its “lets get er done” attitude. The MSM was so focused on getting on the air face time for its stars that their interference to rescue and relief operations was not even considered. As usual with the media and certain others like Mr. Jackson it is all about them, not all about the disaster which just occured.

  3. Chris M says:

    The USMC and US Army SF aren’t known for their love of waiting for permission. Glad to see them doing what they do best to help save lives! Hoorah and Huah!

  4. Agnes says:

    “[Fantastic. And a lesson to leadership in every organization, especially Holy Church.]”

    It really is tremendous. If we ALL had the same attitude toward the saving of spiritual lives, what a Church we would be!

  5. An American Mother says:

    That’s a good, fair post-action analysis. Kudos to Team Rubicon for their ‘git ‘er done’ attitude. Sometimes that’s just what it takes. And kudos to the brass hats of the 82nd for realizing that fact.

    The unusual factor that was present here was the complete absence of any functional Haitian government at all in the aftermath of the quake.

    The NGOs – and to some extent the U.S. military – were faced with a situation where nobody at all was in charge, yet it seemed that somebody ought to be since they were in another and supposedly sovereign country. Ordinarily – no matter how incompetent and corrupt the government – officials take great offense if the U.S. or U.S. organizations just march in and take over. The bean-counters, bureaucrats, and mid-level officers were no doubt brought up short by this unusual situation. And that cost time and probably some lives.

    Hopefully the Red Cross and the military will carry away lessons from this experience and be prepared to take charge more proactively in this sort of situation.

    It’s clear that Team Rubicon already has wrapped their heads around it. But a smaller, more agile organization adapts more quickly to unusual circumstances. Good thing they were there!

  6. Cavaliere says:

    In addition to the admirable efforts of groups like Team Rubicon I would like to give a little recognition to one of our Catholic groups that are providing medical and relief services in Haiti. The U.S. associations of the Order of Malta support 3 ongoing missions in Haiti and since the earthquake have played an important role in providing medical care and getting relief supplies to the victims. The Hopital Sacre Coeur in Milot is the only private hospital in the north and has been treating many of the most critical patients evacuated by the U.S. Navy. In addition the international relief branch of the Order, Malteser International, had a team on the ground almost immediately coordinating relief efforts and laying the ground work for the long-term recovery of Haiti as they have been doing in other countries around the world devasted by natural disaster. For more information on the efforts of the Order and their works you can visit

  7. An American Mother says:

    Hear, hear, Cavaliere!

    Our parish held a special collection the Sunday after the earthquake for Haiti, and directed the proceeds to the Order of Malta U.S. Association.

    Our rector has always supported the Order of Malta enthusiastically. He pointed out to the congregation that all administrative expenses are absorbed by the Order, so that every penny donated goes directly to the people of Haiti.

    We’re a fairly good sized parish, so hopefully the money will be a substantial help.

  8. Cavaliere says:

    An American Mother, undoubtedly the money your parish collected will be a substantial help. As you said 100% of the dollars collected by the Order of Malta for Haitian relief will be sent to our projects we support there: The Crudem Foundation, Hope for Haiti, and the Haitian Health Foundation. In addition to our own groups we awarded a grant of $75,000 to AmeriCares for disaster relief supplies in 2009 and more than $1,000,000 in grants to them over the past decade for disaster relief.

    For anyone interested there will be a PBS special on the work of the Haitian Health Foundation titled Saving Haiti’s Mothers airing on Friday, Janaury 29th at 8:30 in many areas. It will highlight their maternal and infant health program. The program was in the process of being filmed when the earthquake struck.

  9. An American Mother says:

    That’s great – wonderful, wonderful work.

    My family has friends in Haiti still from when we visited there in the 60s and 70s. Unfortunately we have not heard from two of them, but hopefully they are o.k. and are just very busy (which is understandable).

    I’m going to try to catch that special. Even though I haven’t been back in years, I have fond memories of many people there, who were always kind and welcoming to my parents and all us kids. They deserve better than the seemingly endless and dreadful calamities they have withstood over the years.

  10. tioedong says:

    It’s easy to criticize the press who find violence where there is no violence.

    But before you criticize aid groups who hesitate to send doctors and nurses into a potentially dangerous situation, remember: some are killed every year.

    I was “sent home” from one African country because of the potential danger: three months later, a friend who refused to leave another hospital was killed by robbers.

    And it’s not just working in the hospital: the danger includes being robbed while traveling, and of course earthquakes that could crush you to death.

    Dead doctors can’t treat patients….

  11. Gail F says:

    The WSJ has a good story today about a convoy of trucks that drove around all day yesterday and ended up back at the airport — where it had to dump out all its food — because of a whole variety of things. Some were poor coordination. Some were being sent to locations that couldn’t or wouldn’t take the trucks in. Some were problems with traffic (hours-long jams) on the few working roads. One was a major truck accident at a warehouse that made it impossible for any other vehicles to get in or out. Communication and planning are vital, yes, but I think people are overlooking that a lot of other things are going on too. It’s a real mess, and no one is (or can be) in charge of EVERYTHING. There’s no government, the roads were unbelievably bad even before the earthquake and many are impassible now, communications are spotty, and some people are just stupid… as they are anywhere.

  12. irishgirl says:

    Bravo to Team Rubicon and the Order of Malta!

    Yes-I like Team Rubicon’s ‘git ‘er dun’ attitude!

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