Is The U.S. Prepared For The Next Disaster?

The devastation in Haiti and the widespread destruction following Japan's earthquake and tsunami raises questions about America's own readiness for catastrophe. The federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 exposed major shortcomings in the country's ability to respond quickly and effectively to major disasters, but where do we stand now? Host Liane Hansen talks with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate about the agency's ability to effectively respond to disasters in the United States.

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Haitians go to the polls today to elect a new president. It's been a long and contentious road to election day, already postponed once after there were allegations of fraud and voter intimidation in the first round.

Further complicating matters was the raucous return of former President Jean- Bertrand Aristide. He arrived in the Haitian capital Friday, after seven years in exile.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Former President Aristide's return raised concerns that he would disrupt today's election, but since arriving on Friday he hasn't said much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCRUBBING)

JOHNSON: In front of his residence in a Port-au-Prince suburb, all is quiet except for a few men scrubbing muddy footprints off the concrete wall surrounding the compound.

GIL FITZ: (Foreign language spoken)

JOHNSON: Gil Fitz-Basil says they're cleaning the marks left behind by the hundreds who scaled the wall Friday, trying to get at glimpse at him. The twice-elected Aristide is still wildly popular among Haiti's poor and thousands turned out for his homecoming.

FITZ: (Foreign language spoken)

JOHNSON: Fitz Basil said he's so happy Aristide is back, he can't stop jumping up and down with joy.

However, the presidential candidates aren't so happy. Former First Lady Mirlande Manigat and popular Haitian singer Michel Martelly were never fans of Aristide. Both are ideological opposites of the populist leftist Aristide. But Manigat and Martelly have toned down their criticism of Aristide recently, so as not to alienate his supporters.

Maxin Benoit says he wishes Aristide was on the ballot but he plans to cast his vote for Martelly.

MAXIN BENOIT: (Through Translator) We need a change in this country, with all the horrible things that have happened recently, we need someone new.

JOHNSON: Hundreds of thousands displaced from last year's earthquake still live in wretched tent encampments and a stubborn cholera outbreak continues to claim lives.

While Michel Martelly may be a new comer to politics, he's a well-known Kompa music performer here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MICHEL MARTELLY: (Singing in foreign language)

JOHNSON: Martelly easily masters the mellow meringue-style beat, but his pop star persona is anything but soothing. He's admitted to smoking pot and using cocaine. Onstage, he's dressed like a woman and mooned his audience.

For her part, the 70-year old Manigat, a university professor, plays up the differences in Martelly's lack of presidential presence. She likes to point out that the 50-year-old singer doesn't even have a college degree.

In recent weeks, the candidates' rhetoric and jabs have heated up, which worries Colin Granderson, who heads an election observation team of the Organization of American States.

COLIN GRANDERSON: I think that up until about two weeks ago, 10 days ago, we were relatively confident. We're starting to have doubts now.

JOHNSON: He says election officials are not as organized as they need to be to pull of a more credible contest than what took place during the primary last November. Allegations of voter fraud, intimidation and ballot stuffing were widely reported.

Granderson says as late as yesterday, some poll workers were still getting trained.

GRANDERSON: Too many things were left as of the last moment. And the things that are done at the last moment are done in a rush. They're not going to be done as effectively and as fully as they should have been done, and that obviously has, or can have a negative impact on the day.

JOHNSON: But despite the problems, Granderson says he thinks voter participation will be high.

Even the return of Former President Aristide may not affect the vote. Aristide has remained holed up in his residence and has not made any endorsements in the race.

(SOUNDBITE OF A COLOMBE D'OR YOUTH CHOIR)

COLOMBE D: (Singing) Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

JOHNSON: At the former president's charitable foundation, the youth choir practices. Everyone here says they're going to vote.

PIERRE FRANCOIS DAVINS: If we want our country changed, we're going to vote that.

JOHNSON: Twenty-three-year old Pierre Francois Davins says the youth of Haiti will vote for change. They'll have to wait to find out who the winner will be. Election results won't be released until March 31st.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLOMBE D'OR YOUTH CHOIR)

JOHNSON: Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

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