Tragedy has a way of putting things into perspective. While most Americans were safe and living in relative comfort but fretting about our lackluster economy, Haitians — already scourged by food crises and colossal economic and political disasters — were thrown into even deeper despair by an unforgiving earthquake. With reports of more than 150,000 dead, millions hungry, and children having limbs amputated without the aid of anesthesia, many Americans have given generously by texting, calling, and mailing donations, while a handful have gone to the ravaged country to provide help in person. Haitians will continue to struggle for the foreseeable future and hopefully the world won't forget about their plight once round-the-clock news coverage ends.

What can engineers do? What we all can do: Send a bit of money to help through a reputable charity. As Elisabeth Eitel mentioned in a recent Motion Monitor, www.charitynavigator.org is a good place to investigate organizations. While Haiti struggles with immediate needs for food, clean water, medical care, and shelter, there just may be a silver lining in the cloud that's been hanging over Haiti for so many years. The country is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, and it seems extremely unfair that an earthquake was added to its long list of woes. But this may just be a chance to rebuild the country with help from the rest of the world, and build it in a way that brings some level of economic security to the island nation. A few miles away, yet worlds apart, is the slightly more successful Dominican Republic and their tourist paradises. How can two countries that share the same piece of land be so different?

Pat Robertson, the popular televangelist, thinks he knows why: When Haiti was under French control, the Haitians made a “pack to the devil” that they would serve him if he would set them free from French rule. Since then, Haiti has encountered nothing but misery. Ridiculous. In contrast, New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that Haitians are “progress resistant” due to various cultural attitudes and practices, such as voodoo and abusive child rearing. Brooks suggests a new approach: “It's time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos, and tough, measurable demands.” However, we might tread lightly with promoting our own visions here: The U.S. has a history with Haiti tainted by self-serving actions — starting with Woodrow Wilson's 1915 dubious deployment of Marines to the nation, right up to our government's tragic funding of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti in the 1990s.

Besides giving money, Americans might help Haitians by studying their history and getting involved in shaping our country's involvement there. Otherwise, if you're a hands-on person, visit Engineers Without Borders at www.ewb-usa.org. The organization is soliciting French-speaking Civil or Structural Engineers and other skilled technical assistance to meet immediate needs for emergency infrastructure work. If this describes you, they need you — go. We salute you.