Oberstar: Obama should commit more money to Haiti relief

As the only member of Congress who has lived in Haiti and speaks the Creole language, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) is understandably worried about the country’s future in the wake of the disastrous Jan. 12 earthquake.

Oberstar, who taught English in Haiti from 1959-62 and was in Port au Prince only three months ago, has emerged as a key figure in the Haitian relief effort, even as he pushes for legislation to rebuild America’s infrastructure as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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Noting that President Barack Obama has called for a $100 million U.S. relief effort in Haiti, Oberstar indicated he feels that figure is too small, comparing it to the $255 million Congress appropriated to repair the Interstate highway bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis two years ago. “Haiti has a vastly greater need and far greater urgency,” he said.

He also said he hopes American companies looking for ways to expand overseas will look to Haiti. “Haiti is the place to expand. Don’t go to China, India or Indonesia.”

“It breaks my heart,” Oberstar said as he described his reaction to reports of the massive death and destruction in the Caribbean nation of 9 million people.

Oberstar is asking his colleagues to encourage their constituents to contribute to the Haitian relief effort, to approve a supplemental appropriation for emergency aid to Haiti and to support a proposal by the president of the Dominican Republic to hold an international conference and commit $2 billion a year for five years to Haitian relief.

“The U.S. can’t do this alone,” Oberstar said.

At the same time, Oberstar is calling on Obama, and former President Bill Clinton, who with former President George W. Bush is spearheading a global fund-raising effort for Haitian relief, to appoint James Lee Witt, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to oversee and coordinate all U.S. Haitian disaster relief efforts.

“He’s the best we have to set a structure in place for management of the disaster relief for Haiti that requires a multi-faceted response,” Oberstar said of Witt, who headed FEMA from 1993-2001 and is advising the state of Louisiana on the recovery effort in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Oberstar called Dr. Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the Agency for International Development, who is leading the U.S. response to the Haitian relief effort, “a nice fellow who speaks well, but he’s never been in a situation like this.”

Asked if he thinks the American public will continue to support the Haitian relief effort in the future, Oberstar said, “The desire to help the people in distress will be sustainable for a couple of years. Then people will begin to lose interest. Other events, other natural disasters, will happen.  How long can we stay with it? I don’t know.”

But Oberstar, who met Haitian President Rene Preval in Port au Prince in October at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of his time there as a teacher, said that despite the daunting problems Haiti faces, he sees some signs for hope.

“President Preval told me personally that he’s committed not to run again in 2011,” as Haitian law requires, and “if that happens and Haiti has an honest election with the oversight of the international community, then it will have some stability. Haiti is poised for its best opportunity for stability in the history of the country even though it will take a massive effort when they get through the rescue stage.”