Just two weeks ago, an earthquake clocking 7.0 on the Richter scale rocked the tiny island nation of Haiti. The worst disaster to hit the Caribbean in more than two centuries, it is estimated to have taken close to 200,000 lives with another 1.5 million left homeless amidst the rubble of Port Au Prince’s ruined infrastructure.
All this in a country that ranks among the poorest, least developed in the Western Hemisphere.
My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti and the Haitian-American community.
All told, the American people have responded to the disaster with overwhelming generosity and compassion, donating hard-earned money and time to help the victims. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Americans have given more than $220 million to major relief groups thus far, with an unprecedented $22 million donated via cell phone text message alone.
Among the first to respond to the disaster was the International Urban Search and Rescue Team of Fairfax Country. At last report, the team has saved 16 lives and recovered critical medical equipment and supplies. They have continued their rescue efforts, despite that fact that the United Nations called off the official search for survivor’s days ago.
Washington has also been doing its part. The Department of Homeland Security has implemented temporary immigration relief measures for Haitians currently in the United States who are unable to return home due to the devastation. Haitian B-1 or B-2 visa holders, for example, may file for an extension of status for an additional six months. If you or someone you know is in this position, contact the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration or call my district office for more details.
Last week, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would allow individuals who donate money to help victims of the quake claim their donations on their 2009 tax returns (rather than having to wait to file in their 2010 tax return). For those who choose to donate by text message, a cell phone bill will count as proof of donation for tax purposes. Congress enacted similar tax provisions for individuals who made charitable contributions to tsunami victims in 2004.
In the weeks ahead, Congress will also be working on legislation to extend a repatriation program critical for helping evacuate the thousands of Americans currently in Haiti. The program has already used up much of its $1 million budget responding to disasters in other countries. The program assists American citizens trying to flee foreign countries because of destitution, illness, war or other crises and includes help with securing and paying for airfare and finding temporary lodging, food, and medical assistance. I am supportive of efforts to increase funding for this program in light of the extreme situation in Haiti.
Haiti has a tough road ahead. Historically, the country has been mistreated by foreign powers, which has lead to great internal strife. This major natural disaster has crippled a nation which was struggling from these historical injustices. Still, it is my hope that the people of Haiti will be able to rise from the rubble to chart a new destiny for the nation. Thanks to the overwhelming support of the American people and our international allies, they’ve at least got a shot.
Rep. James Moran (D) is Virginia’s 8th Congressional District Representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.