Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Living and Dying with Earthquakes

The same is not true about earthquakes in Haiti.  Some countries live with earthquakes every day; many around the Pacific Rim frequently have violent shakes and have learnt to treat them with enough respect but also with calm and an air of normality.  Even in the Virgin Islands, it was reputed there were on average two earthquakes a day.  When I sat in my office in the corner of the Conservation and Fisheries Office, above the central roundabout in Road Town, I regularly felt my swivel chair vibrate.  I would take a look out of the office window and if there were no big trucks passing the building at that moment I determined it was a tremor.  The office was built on reclaimed land, and was therefore sand vulnerable to liquefaction and I think it amplified any effect.  I seemed to be particularly sensitive in the corner of the building as I picked them all up and would often be the informant to the rest of the office.

Many of these zones where little earthquakes happen are the safest places to be; the pressure built up from huge plates of the earth grating against each other is released little and often.  But in other places the pressure is of a nature that it does not move – maybe the plates are being forced directly towards each other, maybe a knotty piece of mountain is blocking the natural sliding that is needed to release.  But like all pressure, those forces need to be released at some time.  And in Haiti,  there had only been the effect of two earthquakes over the past two hundred years; one in 1842  and a second, centred on the Dominican Republic  in 1946.  Maybe only a handful of people could remember the 1946 event. This means not only a lack of experience by individuals on how to prepare or react to a cataclysmic earthquake but an institutional and national amnesia.  Mix in the corrupt nature of much of government, the lack of planning, limited and ignored building standards, and woeful preparedness for emergency response meant that the country was almost brought to its knees in January 2010.

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A few years earlier this airfield was covered in a tented village that served as the base of operations for the search and rescue teams

Search and Rescue teams, aid agencies, government assistance, NGOS, the Red Cross and military struggled to reach the country in the days after the quake, and remained for months treating the wounded, feeding the survivors, trying to prevent disease (although the relief effort itself exacerbated the issue there) , and try to re-establish the basic infrastructure.  But everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong; the civil service was decimated which meant local and national government had all but collapsed.  A city which was already a powder keg for violence and abuse now became a security nightmare.

The months of struggle to get relief to the affected people turned to months of struggle to put the country and its inhabitants back on their feet.  The large international donors – the USAID, DFID, the EU and others poured not just money in but technical expertise to try to not only make Haiti operational but to start looking at ways for it to become more self sufficient and environmentally sustainable.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – As vulnerable as you can be

The result is that 80% of the population are unemployed; that is have no formal employment.  25 % live in absolute poverty – the one dollar a day threshold.  Many of those who had money have left the country.  The impact on the environment has been devastating; fishing in the Caribbean sea has depleted stocks, already stressed by pollution and soil swamping the coral reefs.  That soil has been washed off steep slopes due to the stripping of trees and other vegetation for fuel and subsistence agriculture.

And in the centre of this small country lies a valley where much of the population has made its way – the capital Port Au Prince lies at the heart of a dense conurbation; the main port and airport and  much of the industry and commerce.  Crammed into mountain ranges on either side this valley is a tense melting pot for all the factions, classes, families and social groups of Haiti as a whole.

In January 2010, the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault which runs straight through the crammed valley of Port Au Prince moved.  With a magnitude of 7.0, the resulting earthquake and its aftershocks caused the death of around a quarter of a million people, with many other hundreds of thousands injured or  left homeless.

And herein lies Haiti’s other problem.  It lies in a region of the earth vulnerable to all manner of natural disasters.  Each year, especially around September and October, hurricanes spin across from the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea or across from the Atlantic. Storm surges cause flooding along the coast, the rain loosens soil and rocks on the steep eroded slopes and landslides rip apart the mountains, depositing on villages and towns below.  Because of its poverty and the weary corrupt riddled bureaucracy of government, the planning and implementation of measures to reduce the risk and impact of these disasters, Haitian society is vulnerable to having the worst of outcomes from these natural hazards.  But at least the regularity of hurricanes means that the memory amongst the community of their problems are refreshed each time – maybe not every year, but often enough that a generation does not forget the experience or the lessons learnt.

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Piles of rubble still left on the roadside since the earthquake