Haiti’s earthquake: a man-made disaster

March 11, 2010
  • Haiti earthquake not particularly strong
  • Unsafe buildings root cause of catastrophe
  • Surfeit of soldiers, shortage of medics
  • Question mark hangs over reconstruction

Throughout recorded history just three earthquakes have killed more than 200,000 people. Until 2010 that is, when - according to some estimates - Haiti’s became the fourth.

Haiti lies on a fault line that had been relatively quiet for a century. Pressure was building. In a sense, the Caribbean republic had it coming.

Yet the Haiti earthquake was not exceptionally strong - just a 7.0 magnitude tremor. A similar sized earthquake in California in 1989 killed just 63 people.

And while its epicentre was tragically close to the crowded capital, Port-au-Prince, that does not account for the scale of this catastrophe.

Neither does the fact that the quake began just eight miles below ground. When quakes are shallow like this the energy produced isn’t absorbed by the earth. “It was a lot worse than if it had been deeper,” says Veronica Cedillos, a structural engineer with NGO Geohazards International.

But no, the main reason the Haiti earthquake killed so many people is man-made rather than geological: it is poverty.

Earthquakes, even big ones, do not inevitably become catastrophes. “[They] only becomes a disaster when you introduce poverty, and that is Haiti,” says Ian Bray, spokesman for UK charity Oxfam.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. “Port-au-Prince is such a dense city, and most of the construction is very, very poor,” says Cedillos.

In 2008, Port-au-Prince’s own mayor estimated that 60% of the capital’s buildings were unsafe.

And that is what made Haiti a “uniquely challenging” disaster zone, says Richard Bunting, spokesperson for the UK Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). “The Haitian infrastructure was already extremely fragile, and it was devastated. Roads were destroyed, the port damaged, and the airport was hit badly.”

DEC members who already had operations in Haiti, such as Oxfam and Save the Children, were themselves badly affected by the quake. Oxfam’s office and warehouse were flattened.

“It took us about five to six days to recover,” says Bray. “We lost communications and found it very difficult to get hold of colleagues. What was remarkable was that Haitians organized themselves within their communities. 

Collapsing buildings also killed many who would normally have coordinated the relief effort—government officials, medics, aid workers. The international community rallied, offering money and manpower. But who was in charge on the ground?

Operating out of a police station near the airport, the Haitian government organised the disposal of dead bodies but was unable to offer much support to the living.

The United Nations already had a significant presence in Haiti before the earthquake - but many of its senior staff and key workers were killed when their building collapsed.

Without proper leadership, a 9,000-strong UN peacekeeping force continued to focus on its mandate to maintain security rather than rescuing survivors and administering medical aid.

Meanwhile, 10,000 US soldiers arrived to restore transport links - to the bewilderment of many Haitians who urgently wanted to see doctors, medicine, food and shelter, not more soldiers. 

Relief did eventually get through. The capital’s airport, port and roads were fixed. By early March 2010 - around two months after the earthquake struck - the World Food Program had fed a staggering 2.5 million people.

Attention turned to shelter. At the height of the relief effort, the UN was handing out tarpaulins to 1,500 families a day. Thousands more people were housed in temporary accommodation.

Haiti is still rebuilding, with billions of dollars in relief aid having been pledged to help it do so

Now that the dust has settled, some question the 200,000-plus death toll originally estimated by the Haitian authorities. Others say around a quarter of that figure died, with many more displaced and injured.

But what remains certain is that this small, struggling nation remains desperately poor, its troubles now compounded by having to care for a generation of orphans and disabled people.

It will be rebuilt of course. It has to be. But without effective support and without the skills and tools it so badly needs, will Haiti be rebuilt to last? 

James Tulloch

This could be interesting for you

Natural catastrophes are as much a result of poverty and weak government as plate tectonics and weather - that’s why they hit the world's poor hardest.
Here is everything you need to know about tsunamis: causes, impacts and early warnings systems. 
Learn about the 10 deadliest volcanic eruptions in history.