January 25, 2010

Haiti has been described by many as a disaster waiting to happen. So many terrible events have struck it in the past, seemingly one after another. Within the space of a single western generation – nearly two Haitian generations – it has become the western epicentre of AIDS, experienced three violent coups and revolutions, and suffered terribly from the rains of Tropical Storm Jeanne. It has never managed to escape the desperate poverty of its colonial period. Saint-Dominique was the richest of all New World French colonies, but at a price: one-third of all its slaves died within a week of arrival.

Even before the earthquake, Port-au-Prince was desperately poor. Three-quarters of the population of Port-au-Prince is officially considered unemployed: although in reality its people struggle for daily existence on small sales of food and services. There is no part of the street that is not a marketplace. Were anyone truly without work and without family to help, they would starve.

People come to Port-au-Prince to find work, but there is no work to be had. As of the 2003 census, Port-au-Prince had an official population of 700,000. Even then, the estimate was considerably off. Most relief experts place the city's population at closer to three million, most of them living as squatters in slums on the hillsides above the main city.

Haiti has no building codes. Even if it did, there would be no point. Those who build for profit seek to cut costs at every turn. Those who are desperate for shelter will create it wherever they can manage. When the earthquake struck, the low-quality concrete collapsed and crumbled, even in such high profile buildings as the Presidential Palace. In Leogane, at the epicentre of the earthquake, not one concrete building survived.

Even as any buried survivors were still being pulled out, people immediately began removing the building materials and anything that could be remade into building materials. Were it not a matter of public safety, we might even call it thrift.

Yet the construction mattered less than commonly assumed. Most of the buildings in Port-au-Prince would probably not have survived any kind of disaster, but this one was in a league of its own. Earthquake intensities of VII to X on the Modified Mercalli scale are associated with moderate to extremely heavy damage, even to structures with earthquake-resistant construction. The Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault had not experienced a major earthquake in 250 years, and had been fully locked for at least the last forty.

When the fault lines gave way, Port-au-Prince experienced an MM of IX.

The earthquake struck in the worst possible way: at a depth of just thirteen kilometres under heavily populated Leogane. Ninety percent of Leogane's buildings no longer stand. Much of its government may as well no longer exist. Leogane was home to a nursing school: it was destroyed.

Had Leogane had an airport, it too might have been destroyed; but all it has is a beach too shallow for shipping. Outside Port-au-Prince, the nearest airstrip is at Jacmel, on the opposite coast of Haiti. British and Icelandic search and rescue units could not reach Leogane until January 17: five full days after the initial quake. By then it was too late for many people.

Jacmel itself was lucky, as these things go. Although 70 percent of its buildings are damaged, most are still standing. It was struck by not one but four separate tsunami, but it did little more than leave fish gasping. Even so, some five hundred people died in Jacmel. Home to the only film school in Haiti, Jacmel had been the heart of a large and vibrant film festival. On January 11, Choice Hotels had announced that they would be building a new Comfort Inn.

On January 12, the earthquake struck.

The morgues are overwhelmed. No city could have dealt with death on the scale that struck Port-au-Prince. Bodies are buried as rapidly as possible, most into mass graves. It cuts to the roots of the Haitian soul to deal with death so perfunctorily: but to do less would be to leave bodies rotting in 30 degree heat.

Most government buildings have been destroyed. The city hall is gone. The capital building, the parliament building, the Presidential Palace itself was not spared. At least one hospital was reduced to rubble, and all three Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospitals were severely damaged. The chief of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) was killed when the mission's headquarters were destroyed. Haitian boy and girl scouts are providing crowd control at food distribution points. Most of the local police force are dead, as is its chief of police.

Virtually all essential services were destroyed, from fibreoptic communications to roads. Landlines are dead. The seaport was not initially usable because of damaged cranes, and the airport itself was damaged from the runway to the control tower. Even before the earthquake, it was only capable of handling twelve airplanes at a time, barely. Before aid shipments could even start, a new control centre had to be set up – with generators, since there still is no electricity. Ironically, the seaport in Gonaïves, which suffered so terribly during Tropical Storm Jeanne and Hurricane Hanna, was nearly untouched by the earthquake – but the roads in between were impassable.

So limited were the facilities at Toussaint Louverture International Airport that United States forces were initially forced to choose between basic supplies and the security to protect them during distribution. (Existing security on the ground had been largely destroyed with the MINUSTAH headquarters.) The result was that some chartered relief flights, including three MSF flights, were delayed in holding patterns for three hours or more. MSF has started trucking potable water to its own field hospitals. Most flights into Haiti now load extra fuel even for short hops from the Dominican side of the island to the Haitian side, just in case.

Ask not what factors contributed to this disaster. Ask, instead, what miracle allowed so many people to survive. Ask, also, whether many of us would even have been aware of Haiti's plight, had such a disaster never happened.

It is in our hands now. We have the will to give, for now. Can that will persist for as long as it will take to carry Haiti into a true rebirth?

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