“All of a sudden everything was just falling apart … there was no place to hide.”
On the 12th of January 2010 the Caribbean island of Haiti experienced its worst earthquake in more than two centuries. The quake is said to have reached point 7 on the Richter scale and was closely followed by two strong aftershocks of 5.9 and 5.5 magnitude. The ramifications of the quake are still being experienced in what the UN is calling an ‘historic’ disaster. The death toll in Haiti continues to rise in dramatic numbers and there are still countless people missing. It is estimated that a third of Haiti’s population has been directly affected by the earthquake. The full extent of the emergency in human, social and financial terms is still unknown, as emergency responses are continuing to recover bodies – finding people alive even after 15 days! The majority of buildings in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, have been demolished by the earthquake – government buildings, international NGO and UN headquarters, museums, art galleries, prisons, hospitals, etc., and of course the majority of the capital’s and surrounding area homes.
Many homes are built without proper foundations and are not subject to building codes, built wherever space allows. This has repercussions for health and welfare since illegal squatters – estimated at 2 million people – do not have access to clean water or sanitation coupled with issues of overcrowding. Add to this a devastating earthquake and you can understand the despair of the Haitian people. There are dead bodies everywhere – running into tens of thousands. Rubble covers some who are still alive, but you don’t have the equipment to get them out. It seems that no-one has come to your immediate aid. It’s hot. It’s humid. The stench of rotting bodies and what to do with the thousands lying dead on the streets. The threat of violence and rape. Children without parents opening up opportunities for trafficking. The financial costs and who will pay since Haiti already has huge debt burdens. The repercussions are endless and some unthinkable.
There has been a huge international humanitarian effort in support of the Haitian people – the US has deployed thousands of troops to support the humanitarian and security situation distributing supplies and much needed equipment. All the usual international NGOs are represented and there is a large UN presence (who were badly affected with scores of their in-country staff dead or unaccounted for). Even celebrities have been busy fundraising, organizing concerts and flying in their private jets in with their own supplies! However, there have been major criticisms over the disjointed humanitarian efforts from all sides with no one agency or government taking the leadership post. Some argue that the deployment of the US army has been to the detriment of delivery of immediate supplies such as food and medicine, (the US had control of the city’s airport). Generally, the feeling is that the situation has been hampered by the lack of coordination in the disaster response, with the clearest criticism directed towards US and UN relations. Also hampering the humanitarian efforts is the damage to communication systems, infrastructure for mobility, the loss of local and international NGO staff who would have ordinarily facilitated immediate responses from in-country, the limited capacity of existing infrastructural facilities such as the country’s airport (which was also badly affected during the earthquake) to facilitate huge increases in volumes of traffic, lack of machinery to locate and extract survivors and the perception of escalating violence as a result of local anger to the slow humanitarian response rate.
Some longer term issues which also need consideration when coordinating a response to a disaster – for example land issues when setting up temporary housing, ensuring the most vulnerable are included in the response, the on-set of the rainy season from May and issues the likelihood of flooding in temporary camps, the location of these camps in relation to people’s access to services and work, sanitation issues, orphans, etc.