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Earthquakes and Other Disasters in Haiti (Updated)

January 14, 2010

Haiti Earthquake Shake MapI grew up in an earthquake-prone portion of the US (no, not California: think north). We had earthquake drills and lessons about what to include in earthquake kits. As an undergraduate, I trained in civilian disaster response as part of the dorms’ earthquake response team learning advanced first aid techniques and ways to remove rubble without endangering myself or others. Building codes, while never perfect, were updated as understanding of the seismic risks improved. None of that, of course, is possible in a nation that has been impoverished. As Jonathon Amos of the BBC reports, Haiti is the worst of places for a big tremor. To quote meloukhia, “what happened in Haiti didn’t happen because there was an earthquake. It happened because Haiti’s infrastructure is shot.”

International urban search and rescue teams are on their way, but they can only do so much. Because of how essential time is, the majority of people rescued in an earthquake are rescued by the people already on scene. In Haiti, due to the lack of equipment available locally, people are digging through the ruins with their hands. In the absence of appropriate and well-stocked medical facilities, those who have been injured by the quake are less likely to survive; the Red Cross has already run out of medical supplies. It is currently feared that the death count will reach over 100,000 (warning: strong and upsetting images at this link). Some estimates are even higher:

President Rene Preval said he believes thousands were killed in Tuesday afternoon’s magnitude-7.0 quake, and the scope of the destruction prompted other officials to give even higher estimates. Leading Sen. Youri Latortue told The Associated Press that 500,000 could be dead, although he acknowledged that nobody really knows.

“Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed,” Preval told the Miami Herald. “There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them.”

Survivors gather outside the destroyed National Palace (image courtesy of Globovisión).

The most important thing right now is to get aid to the survivors, but even then we must be careful, for as Kim Ives (a journalist for the newspaper Haiti Liberté) tells Amy Goodman:

aid has historically in Haiti been extremely pernicious. It has destroyed Haitian agriculture. It’s been a real counter to development in the country, development aid. And even humanitarian aid has been often wasted. For instance, during—after the storms of 2008, $197 million was freed from the Petrocaribe accounts, which Venezuela provided Haiti. A lot of questions remain about how that money, that $197 million, was spent. A lot of it seems to have been frittered away into corruption and various other types of embezzlement.

He recommends donating to the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund. Other organizations include the Pan American Relief Fund, Partners in Health, Yéle, the Global Fund for Women, and Doctors Without Borders. NPR also has a list of ways to help.

There is also a petition to President Obama asking him to grant temporary protected status to undocumented Haitian workers so that they will not be deported to a devastated country. You can read the Catholic Legal Services (FL) statement on the issue here.

But we also need to think in the long-term about why Haiti was so impoverished and so vulnerable to devastation by this earthquake. FiveThirtyEight has a brief history of the relationship between Haiti and the US (h/t) which leaves out the US role in the ousting of Aristide but does ask important questions:

what is to be done about the American and European agricultural subsidies that make farming in Haiti (among most of the developing world) economically infeasible for so many? And as well, how will the devastated natural environment, including degraded land and polluted water and air be revitalized to support a sustainable society, economy and government?

What’s more, as Haiti begins the long and painful process of recovering from not only this earthquake but also the poverty which amplified its devastation, the people will need grants targeted towards helping them rebuild a sustainable society, not loans. The austerity measures demanded by the IMF-World Bank through the leverage of loans have been a disaster for Haiti (as well as for other nations). IMF “reforms” have, at various points, led to increased fuel prices, depressed wages, and eviscerated social services.

To prevent future disasters, and to mitigate the ones that cannot be prevented, we must demand that sustainable aid replaces loans and that the economic policies of nations like the US which have pushed Haiti and other parts of the world into poverty be changed.

UPDATE: The US has granted Haitians Temporary Protected Status.

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