Haiti’s Seismic Sorrow Needs Handling With Care

The 7.2-magnitude earthquake and tropical storm-induced flooding have pushed the poverty-stricken people of the Caribbean nation into deep distress. Only a politically stable government with an effective action plan can save them from further turmoil.

The stench of rotting bodies permeates the air at the coastal town of Les Cayes. A frisson of fear sweep through as wails of the bereaved and unsettling silence of those in search of their loved ones coexist. On the streets, people plead for food, water, medical attention, and shelter, while a few others vent their anger against the painstakingly slow rescue operations.

Four days into the devastation caused by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake in the southwestern part of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, the death toll has seen a sharp rise to nearly 2,000. The epicenter of the temblor was about 12 km northeast of Saint-Louis-du-Sud, which is located 125 km west of the capital Port-au-Prince.

The Sud, Grand’Anse, and Nippes departments, especially the cities of Les Cayes, Jeremie and Anse-à-Veaux, were the hardest hit. Homes, hotels, schools, and churches were all reduced into rubble in a matter of seconds, rekindling painful memories of the 2010 quake that killed more than 200,000 people. According to UNICEF, about 1.2 million people, including 540,000 children, have been affected this time.

Double trouble

The Caribbean nation is no stranger to political turmoil and natural disasters. The country’s President Jovenel Moise was assassinated on July 7, but no answers have been found on who killed him. Two weeks after his murder, Ariel Henry was sworn in as prime minister. Gang violence and poverty affect the lives of Haitians in a big way. According to the latest UNDP Human Development Index, Haiti ranks 170 out of the 189 countries and territories assessed.

Haitians were sucked further into the vortex of despair after the August 14 earthquake, which destroyed more than 60,759 houses and afflicted injuries on 9,900. As if that was not enough, gusty winds and strong rains pounded the area under the impact of Tropical Storm Grace on August 17, pushing the homeless to take cover under the plastic tarpaulin sheets provided by a US agency. Muddy water entered the streets and triggered fears of landslides and flash floods.

With such cataclysmic events recurring, rescue workers had no option but to temporarily halt the operations. As a result, the death toll was updated on August 17 evening to show a sharp increase of 541 deaths within 24 hours. According to the latest tally provided by Haiti’s National Emergency Operations Centre, the number of dead totaled at least 1,941.

Haiti sits near the intersection of two tectonic plates – the Caribbean and North American – that form the Earth’s crust. Several fault lines between the plates cut through or near the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Earthquakes can occur when the plates move against each other and cause friction. Huge population density and lack of quake-resistant buildings increase the risk of damage when tremors strike. “Hispaniola sits in a place where plates transition from smashing together to sliding past one another,” Rich Briggs, a research geologist at the US Geological Survey’s Geologic Hazards Science Centre, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Challenges ahead

Geographically, Haiti does not have much of a choice to relieve itself from an earthquake. But some pre-quake and post-quake measures can lessen its seismic sorrow. One of the vital steps would be to prevent widespread building collapses, which in turn can bring down the number of deaths. Most of Haiti’s houses are poorly built and use concrete and cinder blocks that can withstand hurricanes but not tremors. Though efforts were made to build quake-proof buildings in the aftermath of the 2010 disaster, it did not take shape into a unified mission. Such an action plan should be given utmost priority at least now.

Further, international aid should be streamlined to ensure that poor Haitians benefit from it. Medical requirements, including painkillers and splints, are in short supply and logistical issues are delaying the shipping of aid to the region. The country had earned the nickname ‘The Republic of NGOs’ after the 2010 quake, as government agencies fumbled in handling humanitarian aid and provided fertile soil for non-governmental ones to flourish. This time around, in a welcome step, Prime Minister Henry has said that all donor assistance would be handled by a single operations center in Port-au-Prince.

Another issue that requires the immediate attention of the authorities is the systematic deforestation of mountains for producing charcoal. According to CNN meteorologist and weather producer Michael Guy, some 42 of the country’s 50 highest mountain peaks are completely devoid of vegetation, and only one per cent of Haiti’s primary forest remains. With the quake destabilizing the soil and very heavy rains in short spells pummelling the region, mudslides have become the ticking time bombs that Haiti should defuse at the earliest. Any step towards afforestation will succeed only if people are lifted from the clutches of poverty and their dependency on forests reduced. For that to happen, political stability is a must.

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