Global’s Update – 07/29/10
Haiti Struggles to Settle the Dust Six Months Later
It has been six months since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake and an accompanying 33 aftershocks rattled the Haitian town of Léogâne, levelled 38% of the capital of Port-au-Prince and killed 230 000 people. As the country shifts its focus from the provision of emergency services to a massive rebuilding effort, its people face some daunting obstacles.
There are 20 million cubic tonnes of rubble to clear away in a country with a shortage of both earth-moving equipment and space to dump construction waste. To date, less than 5% of the wreckage has been cleared. Rebuilding is further hampered by questions as simple as what to build and where. Most of Haiti’s land-ownership registry and title deeds were destroyed in the quake. Where most countries’ economies falter when they face double-digit unemployment, Haiti’s populace now faces double digit homelessness.
The upheaval came just as Haiti was gearing up for an election cycle. Faced with such an enormous response and rebuilding effort, Haitian President Rene Preval suspended elections and extended his own term ostensibly in an attempt to buttress government continuity. For a country that has suffered 32 government coups, the regime of the Duvaliers and the troubled administrations of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, this move was regarded with suspicion by many in the aid and diplomatic communities. As a result, the flow of financial aid into the battered country has slowed to a trickle.
President Preval has reversed his decision and called for a general election, but 25% of Haiti’s civil servants were killed by the quake and the national voters’ registry is now virtually non-existent. Administering an election and the credibility of its results will be major questions for citizens and foreign observers.
It didn’t have to be like this
The importance of planning and fostering a culture of preparedness come into stark relief when Haiti’s troubles are compared to those of Chile. Yes, Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere while Chile is one of the richest, but implementing earthquake resistant building codes is not much more expensive when it is done at the beginning of construction.
Chile suffered an earthquake 500 times more powerful (8.8 magnitude), but is in an area where seismic activity is relatively common and has one of the most stringent building codes with regards to earthquakes. Children regularly do earthquake drills in school. Haiti has not had a major quake since the 19th century. Within hours of the Chilean quake, Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet addressed her people showing her country that she was in charge and overseeing response efforts. Haiti’s government almost vanished as its operations were almost literally buried under earthquake rubble for days.
The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, made up of representatives in the aid community and chaired by Haitian Prime Minister Jan-Max Bellerive and former US President Bill Clinton, has overseen the spending of $50 million on rebuilding projects. But it will hand over its function to the Haitian Development Agency in October of 2011. Unfortunately, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has found that “to date the [Haitian] government has not done an effective job of communicating to Haitians that it is in charge and willing to lead the rebuilding effort. The US government says that President Preval needs to empower his deputies to make more of the important decisions that the recovery effort requires.