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Haiti is caught in tragedy once again. The country has been hit by its strongest earthquake for two centuries. While world leaders, institutions, NGOs, and individuals make their pledges, thousands are trapped beneath the rubble and unknown death tolls mount. The struggle to save lives is hampered by an obliterated infrastructure.

Shortly before dark at 16.53 on Tuesday 11 January Haiti was struck by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, its most powerful in 200 years. The earthquake struck only 15km south west of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince. It lasted for nearly a minute. Witnesses stated that the city was cloaked in a cloud of dust and smoke for about 12 minutes after the earthquake. Rory Carroll, writing for the Guardian, describes what lay beneath the cloud of dust: ‘When it partly cleared the scene was apocalyptic. Neighbourhoods levelled, shopping centres reduced to rubble, ravines filled with corpses and debris. People streaked white with dust and red with blood wept and staggered, dazed amid an alien landscape.’

The devastation in the city was described by Haiti’s president, Rene Preval, as ‘unimaginable’. While the death toll remains unknown, the Red Cross has stated that up to 3 million people have been affected. Survivors have been sleeping on the streets.

Photographs are an immediate and stark portrayal of the extent of the devastation to Port-au-Prince and its surrounding areas. Images are of entire shanty towns melted onto the side of hills; before shots of the crisp white domes of the presidential palace in their stiff splendor contrasted with a drooped and buckled pile; bloody, desperate faces; anonymous limbs.

While the death toll cannot yet be calculated, it is clear that numbers do not lie in hundreds or thousands, but in tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands. Jean-Max Bellerive, the Haitian prime minister, has stated that the number of dead could exceed 100, 000. Haitian senator Youri Latortue is far more pessimistic in his estimations, stating that the number of dead could be over 500, 000. There is no way of knowing exact numbers at the moment, however. The extent of the devastation and collapsed buildings is the only clue for estimating the death toll number, with Bellerive stating ‘so many, so many buildings, so many neighbourhoods are totally destroyed, and some neighbourhoods we don't even see people, so I don't know where those people are.’

With a strong presence in Haiti, the United Nations and its personnel have been severely affected. The head of the UN mission to Haiti, Hedi Annabi of Tunisia, and his chief deputy, Luis Carols da Costa are still missing. Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, is reporting 16 peace-keeping soldiers dead and between 100 and 150 people from its peace-keeping mission missing.

Haiti’s already poor infrastructure has been severely damaged. Phone services, electricity and water are all down. Hospitals, schools, hotels have collapsed leaving injured survivors with nowhere to go to receive treatment.

Brian Atwood, formerly of the Agency for International Development, said ‘I can't tell you how devastating this is to a very, very poor country, whose infrastructure was very bad in the first place, which is why the devastation is always worse…’

Médecins Sans Frontières’s ground team is reporting that ‘communication systems such as mobile phone networks are not working and road access is severely hampered.’ A major concern is the devastation caused to medical facilities. The earthquake has severely damaged hospitals in the capital. MSF is currently treating existing patients and attempting to increase its capacity to treat new patients.

Paul McPhun, a spokesman for MSF in Toronto has stated that of the three centres in which MSF has been providing care, ‘One has completely collapsed and two others are so structurally damaged we cannot use them… The challenge, therefore, for our team, is that the level of care we can now provide without that infrastructure is very limited.’ He adds, ‘The reality of what we’re seeing is severe traumas – head wounds, crushed limbs – severe problems that cannot be dealt with at the level of care we currently have available with no infrastructure really to support it.’

The world is now rallying in its aid efforts. Ban Ki-moon has announced that the UN is releasing $10 million from its emergency fund. At the UN Security Council, General Assembly on 13 January, the Assembly’s Acting President Michel Tommo Monthe stated ‘The situation is overwhelming,’ he said. ‘Haiti is neither equipped nor does it have the resources to meet the challenge. It requires the full support and concerted action by the entire international community.’

President Obama has vowed to give Haiti the US’s full support with a ‘swift and coordinated’ response and ‘aggressive effort to save lives’. He has also asserted that the effort must be an international one.

The rest of the world’s leaders have been quick to follow suit. Aid is being offered in the form of funds, personnel and supplies and has been pledged by several other countries including Britain, Canada, China, France, Spain, Guyana, Iceland, Morocco, Cuba, Japan, Russia, Spain, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Belize, Brazil. On Thursday, Israel and Chile added themselves to the list.

South Africa has sent its first team of ten rescue specialists to be followed by a team of trauma specialists, says Dr Imtiaz Sooliman of Gift of the Givers, SA disaster relief organisation. President Jacob Zuma has conveyed South Africa’s condolences to Haiti’s government and people.

Development Banks have begun to pledge aid. The World Bank made its pledge of $100 million on 13 January. It is currently considering setting up a special trust fund to channel and coordinate aid to the country. The World Bank headquarters in the capital have been destroyed, but most of its staff is accounted for. The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) is now to redirect US$98 million of undispersed funds to Haiti. Initially, however, IADB pledged only US$200,000.

The Irish telecommunications network Digicel is donating US$5 million to aid agencies for relief efforts. Donations are being made to the NGOs that are at the forefront of these relief efforts.

Surprisingly, while there is immense international pressure to act quickly, the Jersey Overseas Aid Commission are considering waiting until the end of January until a decision is made on whether it offers support.

Initial efforts on the ground have concentrated on search and rescue efforts with make-shift hospitals being set up. On Wednesday Iceland was one of the first country teams to arrive in Haiti with 10 tonnes of rescue equipment and 37 rescuers. Most rescue workers arrived in Haiti on Thursday 14 January nearly two days after the earthquake. They arrived with thousands of tonnes of supplies.

While aid workers are racing to save lives, scientists have begun explaining why the earthquake has been so devastating. According to David Rothery, Planetary Scientist at the Open University, the extent of devastation caused by the earthquake is not only a result of its magnitude but its closeness to the surface. The source of the earthquake occurred approximately 10km from the earth’s surface. The aftershocks of the earthquake continue to contribute to building collapse. According to Dr Brian Baptie, Seismologist of the British Geological Survey, aftershocks ‘always punch above their weight, affecting buildings that have already been damaged and hampering relief efforts.’ By 1400 GMT on 13 January, 33 aftershocks greater than a 4.5 magnitude had already been recorded.

As the tragedy of the earthquake unfurls, Haiti’s fraught history is being retold. Al Jazeera’s Avi Lewis explains why Haiti is so susceptible to the tragedy: Haiti’s ‘history has been marked not only by natural disasters, but by political and economic conflict. It is a story of international intervention that has left the country particularly vulnerable.’

The tragedy is being explored beyond the immediate devastation and loss of lives. Tim Padgett of Time magazine believes its potency to lie in the fact ‘that it struck at a rare moment of optimism’ in Haiti. In the last decade Haiti has experienced the violent political overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Astride, and four hurricanes. It stands as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Padgett sees hope taken over by tragedy. Haitian-American development consultant Jocelyn McCallan, however, claims that the positive backdrop that the earthquake took place against – ‘could accelerate recovery’. As Padgett states, this is ‘a welcome outlook at this dismal time.’

Survivors on the ground are telling of the horror in Haiti. Ian Rodgers, working with Save the Children in Port-au-Prince says "You are hearing the grief of people as they realise they've lost people, they can't find their children".
Troy Livesay, a Christian missionary in Haiti describes the situation a couple of days later, ‘Many roads are blocked by fallen buildings. MANY people walking around with open and serious wounds.’ He adds ‘Never in my life have I seen people stronger than Haitian people. But I am afraid for them. For us… The horror has only just begun.’

Donations of US$10 can be made to the Red Cross by texting 90999. The money will be charged directly to your phone bill.


* Rebecca Zausmer is an intern with Pambazuka News.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.