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January 18, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Earthquake leaves Haiti in ruins

Haiti flag The 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti last Tuesday was the most destructive and lethal natural disaster to strike the Western Hemisphere in recorded history. The televised images of toppled major buildings and bodies strewn about the streets are almost too much to comprehend. The suffering of the roughly three million residents of the capital Port au Prince is beyond compare, and it is hard to watch the gravely wounded people waiting treatment outside makeshift surgical clinics. Yet every day they are finding more people still alive, liberated from entombment in the rubble. It is cause for some hope in the face of utter despair.

Right now, the most conservative estimate of fatalities is 80,000, but that number is expected to rise substantially. When the final estimates are made, it may rival the 2004 earthquake/tsunami, which killed at least 200,000 people in Indonesia and other countries around the Indian Ocean. But the question of exactly how bad it was or how highly it ranks on the list of historical disasters (see the list below) can never be answered, and the huge uncertainty in all such death tolls merely illustrates another dimension of the tragedy -- that no one but God will ever know all the human lives that were lost that awful day.

The epicenter of the earthquake was only ten miles southwest of the capital Port au Prince, which is why most buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged. Many smaller towns in the southern part of the island country were ruined as well, but because of bad roads and a broken system of communications, it will be days before the full extent of the damage is known. The neighboring Dominican Republic escaped relatively unscathed. President Rene Preval has not played an active role since the presidential palace was destroyed and he became homeless. He has an aloof reputation, and his leadership abilities seem gravely lacking in this emergency. For continuous updates on this story, see

Inevitably, tragedies of this magnitude invite political commentary, and some of what has been said is either very insensitive or ill-informed, reinforcing American prejudices about Haiti. I refer in particular to Rev. Pat Robertson's remark about the alleged "pact with the Devil" made by Haitian independence leaders in 1804; see Christian Science Monitor. Personally, I think the less some of our pundits talk about Haiti's misery, the better.

After the shock of the disaster wore off and as the people's hunger grew, frustration was bound to erupt into violence. As today's Washington Post reported, the security situation is deteriorating as looting escalates. What is left of most banks and retail stores is being stripped bare, and it will probably take several months for markets to resume functioning in a normal way. Also see the BBC, which reported on the 2,000 U.S. Marines who have arrived in Haiti. Hopefully they will not have to stay as long as they did early in the 20th Century, 1915-1934. Unlike other Caribbean Basin countries which were occupied by U.S. forces during that era, the sport of baseball never took hold in Haiti.

Being located in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, Haiti has been plagued by major hurricanes over the course of its history. Part of the problem is man-made, however: deforestation has resulted in more soil erosion, and made Haiti much more vulnerable to mudslides than otherwise. In May 2004 over 1,000 people died in massive floods after days of heavy rains, and just a few months later, in September, Hurricane Jeanne killed at least 1,500 people.

Relief & development aid

Coincidentally, the News Leader recently ran a series of feature stories about the humanitarian/developmental missionary program in which various local churches are participating. Rev. Bowen, a retired rector, played a leading role in this campaign, which is centered at St. Marc's School in Cerca La Source, in the northeast part of Haiti, close to the Dominican Republic border. Our local church, Emmanuel Episcopal, is going to show a movie on Haiti as part of a pizza dinner fund-raising event next Sunday, January 24. In the mean time, you can donate to help the people of Haiti at: Episcopal Relief & Development.

Politics in Haiti

Of all the 20 countries in Latin America, Haiti is the one I have studied the least. That is because it is French-speaking and is culturally distinct from the rest of the region. Haiti's political system does exemplify bad aspects of Latin America, however, with violence and instability for most of its history. For many decades it was an oligarchy dominated by the light-skinned mixed-race elite class, led by the Duvalier family from the late 1950s (under "Papa Doc") until the late 1980s, when his son "Baby Doc" was forced to flee. Catholic Priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide came to power, but was forced out until President Clinton sent in the U.S. military to restore his authority. Aristide was elected president once again in 2000, but an uprising broke out in early 2004, and he was forced to resign and flee the country. Because of poor security, elections planned for November 2005 were repeatedly postponed until early 2006. The process of counting votes was marred by irregularities, and after riots by poor people, election officials in Haiti changed their rules and declared former President Rene Preval to be the winner in February 2006. (Preval is an ally of Aristide.)

In short, Haiti is an extremely dysfunctional country with a host of social maladies, and it lacked even rudimentary emergency response capabilities. For the next few years at least, it will be largely dependent on international assistance just to survive.

Accordingly, I have updated my Haiti background information page, including an attempt to reflect the current political party configuration, which is very complicated and confusing. Since I am not at all an expert on Haiti, that summary of political parties must be regarded with a grain of salt.

Latin American earthquakes

Anyone who pays much attention to Latin America knows that the region is prone to experiencing major earthquakes, especially the countries along the eastern rim of the Pacific Ocean. (The first time I traveled to Peru, in 1994, I felt at least three minor tremors that were enough to make the walls shake.) To put the 2010 Haiti earthquake in perspective, it is useful to look at the major earthquakes in modern Latin American history. In the list below, the estimated fatalities are in parentheses:

SOURCE: World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2004

The devastating 1985 earthquake that wrecked large parts of Mexico City happened barely six months after I visited there. It was made worse by the fact that Mexico City was built on an old lake bed, and the ground beneath is still wet and unstable. In addition, a large earthquake hit southern Mexico in 2003, forcing a change in my subsequent vacation plans; 29 deaths were reported.

As for more recent seismic events, an earthquake in Guatemala in October 2005 happened soon after a tropical storm had drenched the countryside. The resulting mudslides killed over a thousand people, many more than would have died if the land had been drier and more stable. The most recent major earthquake in Latin America happened in Peru in August 2007. It was centered near Ica, about 100 miles southeast of Lima, and over 500 people died. One year ago, in January 2009, Costa Rica suffered a serious earthquake in the mountains northwest of the capital San Jose.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 18 Jan 2010, 5: 27 PM

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