Without a doubt, the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday ranks with such other large-scale disasters as the 1972 Managua quake and Hurricane Mitch in 1998 -- stark and humbling reminders of how easily man's fragile labors can be annulled by acts of nature.
Sadly, this latest tragedy struck the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, a nation with substandard construction and almost nonexistent hospitals and emergency services -- factors that will mean greater loss of life. Damaged, often corrupt, government agencies will fail to cope with the magnitude of the disaster.
Many Haitians will need massive outside help just to survive. And Haiti's modest economic progress of recent years has been obliterated in an instant.
All of which calls for a bold, integrated and compassionate White House response. President Obama -- with strong bipartisan backing and the open-hearted support of the American people -- should put the United States in the forefront of assistance and relief operations.
Former President Bill Clinton, the UN special envoy to Haiti, is a logical choice to head up US efforts; he's already coordinating the international responses with the United Nations. But Obama should also reach out to a senior Republican, perhaps former President George W. Bush, to give the effort a clearly bipartisan edge.
Fortunately, Obama can also turn to the Defense Department and the US Southern Command (SouthCom) in Miami, which has been preparing for this type of contingency.
US charities, nongovernmental groups and faith-based organizations, strapped as they are, are also mobilizing to assist in the best American tradition.
We should rapidly deploy sufficient US military and civilian forces to help Haitians restore order in the capital of Port-au-Prince and in surrounding areas. This response should include heavy equipment to clear debris and rubble and emergency food supplies/medicines for as long as they are needed.
And Washington must insist also that Haiti's government prevent corruption from infecting the humanitarian assistance flowing to the country.
Frustrating as it is, new efforts will be needed to give Haitians the economic opportunity to create jobs and to recover. Congress should immediately expand US trade preferences for Haiti.
The 2006 Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act and a 2008 extension (HOPE II) helped to create jobs and boost apparel exports and investment by providing tariff-free access to the US market. The apparel sector makes up about two-thirds of Haitian exports and nearly a tenth of Haiti's GDP. Now the US should establish trade preferences for other imports from Haiti.
The large Haiti-born US population will no doubt be an important factor in Haiti's recovery, both through increased remittances back home and perhaps by the decisions of some Haitian-Americans to move back to help rebuild. Their good will needs to be mobilized.
Cuban medical personnel and Venezuelan cash and assistance teams will arrive in Haiti, and there is bound to be tension and jockeying for credit and media attention.
In this enormous human tragedy, a sense of common humanity should prevail -- but the Castros and Chavezes of the world don't play that way. Expect the propagandists in Havana and Caracas to cast aspersions on the US response.
Friendlier nations like Brazil, France and Canada have heavily invested in peacekeeping operations and will need to join the coalition to reconstruct Haiti. The United States can work with them to strengthen coordination and cooperation.
The unblinking eye of the media will focus in the coming days on loss, suffering and despair. But the real story, yet to be written, will be the bringing together of American capability, generosity and "can do" confidence in this terrible tragedy.
For the sake of the suffering people of Haiti, let's make sure US leadership meets the test.
Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.
First Appeared in The New York Post