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Published March 15, 2019

Haiti is an undeniably beautiful country. Sharing the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, it lies in the Caribbean sea, its mountains offering a stunning contrast to the tropical waters.

However, it is also a turbulent country, both in its politics and in its geology. These two factors collided in January of 2010, creating one of the worst disasters that the 21st century has so far seen.

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View of Labedee, Haiti. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The island now known as Hispaniola was originally occupied by the native Taino people, but that changed in December 1492, when Christopher Columbus and his men landed there, named it “the Spanish island” and claimed it for the Crown of Castile. Many of the natives died in epidemics; they had no immunity to the European diseases the new occupiers had brought with them. Survivors were forced to work for the Spanish in gold mines and plantations.

Later, French buccaneers settled on the western coast of the island, and eventually the island became split between the French and the Spanish. The French called their part Saint-Domingue. They developed the land into sugarcane plantations, importing thousands of African slaves to work there. It was both efficient and brutal; around one third of the imported slaves died within a few years, but that still left plenty to make money for their colonist owners, who they outnumbered ten to one.

As was often the case, there was a certain amount of intermingling between the slaves and their owners; this often resulted in mixed race children who were, in certain circumstances, given some rights or even their freedom. At the end of the 18th century, the Haitian revolution began; the French were defeated and the sovereign nation of Haiti became the first – and only – nation in the world established by a successful slave revolt.

But its first decades were not easy. When the Spanish part of the island declared independence from their own colonial rulers, they were quickly annexed by Haiti, unifying the island. That lasted a little over twenty years; then the Dominican War of Independence began, soon separating the island once again into Haiti in the west and the Dominican Republic in the east.

The twentieth century didn’t go any easier. Haiti was heavily in debt to France, Germany and the United States, and when the First World War began the American marines were sent in to secure some of the nation’s capital. In 1915, the Haitian president was assassinated, and in response the United States occupied the country.

This occupation allowed for the improvement of Haiti’s infrastructure; the construction of new roads and public buildings like hospitals and schools, but again, it wasn’t without unrest. Some of those improvements were built using the corvée system, which obliged Haitians to leave their homes and farms to work construction for their occupiers.

Dr Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier
Dr. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Source: Wikipedia

And next came the Duvalier dynasty; the initially popular Dr Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected as President in 1957, then declared himself president for life. He created the dreaded “Tonton Macoutes”, a paramilitary force which answered only to him, to enforce his position; tens of thousands of Haitians were massacred by the Macoutes.

During the Duvalier regime, corruption became endemic in Haiti; the infrastructure that had been built under the American occupation was neglected as funds were siphoned off into the pockets of the officials in charge.

Upon the death of Papa Doc, the position of President for Life was passed on to his son Jean-Claude, or Baby Doc; his regime was not as brutal as his father’s, but it didn’t offer much improvement for the people. He lived a lavish and extravagant lifestyle, while his people became the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

After the Duvaliers were ousted in 1986, there was still more unrest; fraudulent elections, coup d’etats, a US-led invasion to install a democratically elected president, and another coup d’etat in 2004 which resulted in intervention by the United Nations.

Amidst all of this instability, most Haitians were able to think of little more than day-to-day survival. It would have been hard to imagine it could get worse.

But the political instability of their homeland was not the only threat. Nature wanted its say, too. In 2004, the north coast of Haiti was struck by Tropical Storm Jeanne, killing three thousand people in floods and landslides. In 2008, they were visited by Tropical Storm Fay, Hurricane Gustav, Hurricane Hanna and Hurricane Ike, causing more deaths and leaving many more in need of aid.

And then, on the twelfth of January 2010, just before five p.m., Haiti was struck by the country’s most severe earthquake in two hundred years.

Frantz Florestal, an Atlanta resident who was visiting family in Haiti at the time, described it as sounding like a tornado, followed by a bomb dropping.

“You heard the noise under the ground, and it’s shaking and shaking, and everybody started running. Houses were falling and falling, all of the fences were falling, people were falling, people were crying.”
“You cannot see the air. All of the sudden it’s dark. After that, you saw the sun, the sun was falling under the horizon.”

While he spoke to reporters, two of his cousins were still buried under the rubble that had been their school.

“Do you hear that? The rubble fell on them,” he said. “They can’t take them out because there’s no help.”

Throughout the capital, ruins were everywhere – and within them, countless casualties and survivors. As well as destroying thousands of homes, the earthquake brought landmarks like the Presidential Palace and Port-au-Prince cathedral tumbling down. It also collapsed the Christopher Hotel, which had been home to the headquarters of the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti since 2004.

The head of the UN mission, his deputy, the UN’s international police commander, and the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince were amongst the first casualties.

Jason Miller of Project Medishare, a charity dedicated to providing healthcare to Haitians, described the aftermath.

“To be truthful I was just completely overwhelmed. Driving around those first three weeks, it was just shock and awe, I mean it could have been a war zone. Buildings down, people living in tents, people living on the street, it was total devastation.”

There were many issues facing the rescuers as they arrived on the scene; not least the sheer number of wounded people in need of help, so many that they would have overwhelmed the medical facilities available at the best of times.

Volunteer surgeons arriving within twenty four hours of the earthquake worked with the most basic of facilities, often having to operate on folding tables in tents or even right out in the open because the hospitals themselves had fallen.

An American medical relief worker said later, “Can you imagine having an amputation with no anesthesia, or a lingering and spreading infection with no antibiotics, or a child in need of an injection with only a large-gauge needle meant for an adult?”

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Haitian patients being treated aboard a US hospital ship. Source: Wikimedia Commons

For Wilfrid Macena, a Haitian welder, being crushed by collapsing walls was only the beginning.

“The wall fell on my leg. My tibia was broken and was sticking out. They rushed me to the hospital. When I got there, there was no more hospital. I spent the night on the street, my family didn’t know where I was, and my wife and kids, I didn’t know if they were alive. And my three month old boy, I didn’t know where he was. I spent three days living in a car and I didn’t find any doctor to take care of me.”

Mackenson Pierre, another Haitian survivor, was in school at the time of the quake.

“I saw the roof had fallen on me, and I had several other students with me under the rubble. Every time I heard a police car I said, hey they’re coming to get us out! But no police car ever came for us. To tell you the truth, if I didn’t have a lot of strength, I would have remained under the rubble. Because after spending three days under the rubble, the student close to me started decomposing.”

Rescuers found Mackenson, and broke through the concrete to free him, risking their own lives to do so. He was fortunate; shortly after he was rescued, the remains of his school collapsed during an aftershock.

Both Mackenson and Wilfred eventually got medical attention; however both had by then got infections in their legs and required amputation.

They were not alone. An on-site anesthesiologist from Doctors Without Borders said, “I imagine that not since the Crimean War have surgeons seen and amputated so many limbs.”

Dr Antonia Eysallenne, an American pediatrician, was one of many professionals who rushed to help. She later told a documentary crew,

“We were the first group to take over from the surgeons that were there, who had been working non-stop. I didn’t sleep for days. I just kept going. How can you sleep? I mean, people were screaming and in pain and it was just- you couldn’t, you couldn’t.

“You know those patients that had, you know they were septic and they had obvious open fractures with gangrene and all that, those were the patients that we were like, listen, we’re gonna have to tourniquet and figure out a way to amputate this leg because this person’s going to die if you don’t.”

“I remember a few patients distinctly who were like, no you’re not cutting off my leg. And we tried to save them, we tried to save it as much as we could.”

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Aerial view of damaged Port-au-Prince. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, beneath the rubble, many of the survivors were still fighting for their lives.

Anaika St. Louis, an eleven year old girl, was trapped with a steel beam pinning and crushing her right leg. With no rescue teams available, it was left to neighbours to try and pry her loose. At first they had nothing more sophisticated than a hacksaw to try and cut through the metal that trapped her; two days later they were able to get a small generator and a power saw to the scene, and finally cut her free.

Her aunt, Etiana Jean-Baptiste, told reporters, “She spent 3 days in the hole. All that time saying, ‘My God, I don’t want to die. I want to live.” The little girl’s heartbreaking cries could be heard in a TV news report from the scene, the correspondent clearly struggling to cope with what he was witnessing.

When she was finally freed, her family were told to take her to a hospital some three hours’ drive away, because the sophisticated medical facilities needed to treat her just weren’t available any nearer. Sadly, she didn’t make it through the night.

As similar scenes played out throughout the area, rescuers refused to give up hope; and sometimes their prayers were answered.

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An American rescue team work to free a woman in Port-au-Prince, five days after the quake. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Darlene Etienne, sixteen years old, was pulled out by a French rescue team, alive but severely dehydrated after fifteen days beneath the rubble, and went on to make a full recovery.

Wismond Exantus, twenty four, was somewhat fortunate in that he was trapped in the ruins of the grocery store where he was working; he survived for eleven days on Coca-Cola and biscuits, eating anything he could find.

Workers in Jacmel were demolishing a fallen building on the 19th of January, a week after the quake, when they discovered baby Elisabeth Joassaint, not only alive but uninjured despite being on the first floor when the house collapsed. She was only fifteen days old, and had spent half her life to that point in the ruins.

And, most remarkably, the last survivor was rescued almost an entire month after the earthquake. Evans Monsignac was unable to remember his rescue; but after twenty seven days pinned beneath concrete with no food or clean water, that is unsurprising. After he was found, he was rushed first to an emergency clinic, and then to a hospital in Florida for treatment. He told the Telegraph, “I was resigned to death. But God gave me life. The fact that I’m alive today isn’t because of me, it’s because of the grace of God. It’s a miracle, I can’t explain it.”

He had only been able to survive because he had sipped on sewage water that he found trickling past him.

“I didn’t think of anything, just death. I could smell death from others – there were a lot of people under the rubble with me but the screaming was one day only. Then it was quiet..it was dark all the time. Every time I came out of consciousness I prayed, I prayed that God would rescue me, give me life.

“I thought I was dead. I was in shock. On the second day, maybe the third day, I realised I seemed to be alive and I saw this water. I was hungry and thirsty and I tried to drink something but it was making me sick in my belly. I would take my little finger and wet my lips and swallow it, but the sicker I got as time went on.”

Even for those who had escaped the ruins, clean water and food were in scarce supply. Pipes were broken; trucks had to be used to deliver water, where they were able to get through the roads. Crowds converged on food distribution points as aid started to come into the country, and at times had to be held back by soldiers.

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A Haitian women pleads to be allowed through to a food distribution point. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The living and the wounded were surrounded by the dead; they were piled up by the side of the road as morgues were overwhelmed.

In the heat – the average daily temperature in January in Haiti is around 88 degrees Fahrenheit, about 31 degrees celsius – the bodies were rapidly decomposing.

Mati Goldstein, head of the Israeli ZAKA International Rescue Unit delegation, described terrible scenes.

“Everywhere, the acrid smell of bodies hangs in the air. It’s just like the stories we are told of the Holocaust – thousands of bodies everywhere. You have to understand that the situation is true madness, and the more time passes, there are more and more bodies, in numbers that cannot be grasped. It is beyond comprehension.”

However, some officials downplayed the risks that the unburied bodies brought.

Haitian Red Cross President Michaelle Amedee Gedeon reportedly told Reuters.“I don’t understand why everyone is worried about a disease risk. Do we have cholera in Haiti? No. Do we have the plague in Haiti? No. Rodents, water will not get contaminated. The only bad effect from the corpses is the smell.”

However, by October that was patently untrue; a cholera epidemic began and spread rapidly. On top of the direct casualties of the earthquake, more than eight thousand Haitians would be killed by cholera by August 2013.

Despite protests from local Voudoun priests, many of the earthquake’s casualties were buried in mass graves. An article in the New York Times said,

“Along with everything else stolen by last week’s earthquake, Haitians must now add another loss: the ability to identify and bury the dead. Funeral rites are among the most sacred of all ceremonies to Haitians, who have been known to spend more money on their burial crypts than on their own homes.”

It was impossible even to arrive at an accurate number of the dead; all we have are estimates. Responders were focused on dealing with the living, and simply didn’t have time to count the bodies of the dead. The sheer number of people displaced meant that it wasn’t possible to work out afterwards whether people had been killed or simply left.

At one morgue, physician Dr. Alix Lassegue attempted to work out how many bodies they’d dealt with by calculating how many bodies would fit into the available space, and multiplying it by the number of times the dead had been carried away in trucks. He suggested ten thousand, while other employees of the same morgue guessed that twenty five, fifty, or even seventy five thousand bodies had passed through.

Edmond Mulet, who was appointed head of UN operations in Haiti after the quake, said, “I don’t think we will ever know what the death toll is from this earthquake.”

Early estimates from the Red Cross were between 45 and 50 thousand, but on the 27th of January Haitian president Rene Préval reported that nearly 170,000 bodies had been counted. That estimate was increased to 300,000 on the 21st of February. However, a study by the University of Michigan came to a figure of 160,000.

Whatever the true figure, it’s clear that this was one of the most devastating and deadly earthquakes in history.

Rubbles_of_the_cathedral_after_the_earthquake_that_hit_the_Capital_Port_au_Prince_just_before_5_pm_on_12_January_2010
Ruins of Port-au-Prince Cathedral. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earthquakes are not unknown in the area. This is where the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates meet, and move past each other at a rate of about twenty millimetres, or 0.8 inches, per year. That isn’t a lot, even by geological standards, but it is enough to cause the occasional tremor.

A fault zone, called the Enriquillo–Plantain Garden fault zone or EPGFZ, runs through the southern edge of Hispaniola and across into Jamaica. It had been linked to big earthquakes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and as recently as 1860, but not definitively. Seismology is, after all, a relatively young science.

So, scientists were taken somewhat by surprise when this fault zone triggered the 2010 earthquake, which had a moment magnitude of 7.0.

To put that into perspective; the most powerful earthquake ever recorded was the 1960 Valdivia earthquake in Chile, which was placed between 9.4 and 9.6 magnitude. There have been plenty of other earthquakes around the world with a higher magnitude than Haiti’s; it isn’t even in the top ten. It was a little larger than the 1989 San Francisco or Loma Prieta earthquake, which was measured at 6.9.

With that in mind, what exactly made the Haiti earthquake so deadly?

Firstly, location.  

The earthquake was centred near Leogane, which is close to the capital city of Haiti, Port-au-Prince – just 25 kilometres, or sixteen miles away. According to 2009 figures, the population density of the capital was nearly 25,000 per square kilometre; by comparison, New York City has a density of around 11,000 per square kilometre.

Obviously, striking at the heart of such a densely populated metropolitan area was going to be bad news for the residents.

It also happened at a depth of only 13 kilometres, or 8.1 miles. Since earthquakes can happen anywhere up to 800 kilometres, or 500 miles, deep, that’s unusually shallow. With the epicentre closer to the surface, the intensity of the shaking is much stronger, because it doesn’t have to travel through so much of the earth’s crust to get there. With more intense shaking comes a lot more damage.

Added to that was the fact that the buildings were simply not built to withstand a strong earthquake in the first place.

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The Presidential Palace in ruins. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Haitian Minister of tourism Patrick Delatour said, “The death toll that we have sustained out of that earthquake is due… to the habit that the Haitian people have in building without builders, doing architecture without architects, and planning without planners- meaning in fact using techniques of construction that are totally out of code and out of standard.”

This was just one way in which the political and social climate of Haiti had made a natural disaster into a major catastrophe.

While earthquake-proof construction is possible, Haiti was a poor country with a history of governmental corruption. The funds that could have gone towards a more robust infrastructure had often gone directly into the pockets of the Duvalier regime and their supporters instead, and even once they were gone, it wasn’t possible to eliminate such corruption instantly. Amidst constant political upheaval, the authorities were stuck in a cycle of responding to the disasters that struck them, instead of ever being able to prepare for them.

President Rene Préval and his government were heavily criticised for their slow response to the earthquake. A few days afterwards, survivor Martine Mateus told reporters, “The government has given us nothing, no medical services or water.” He and his sister had by then been sleeping on the ground for days. Another survivor, standing in line for drinking water, said, “They are not doing anything, but they cannot afford to help.”

Préval later said, “Pain made me speechless. As a person I was paralysed. I was much criticised for not having spoken… to say what? To the thousands of parents whose children were dead. To the hundreds of schoolchildren I was hearing scream, “Come help me!” I couldn’t find the words to say to those people.”

However, it wasn’t just a matter of words; the Haitian people wanted action, and they weren’t getting that either.

John O’Shea, head of the Irish medical charity Goal, said at the time, “There is only one thing stopping a massive and prodigious aid effort being rolled out and that is leadership and co-ordination. You have neither in Haiti at the moment. You have the US military doing their thing at the airport. You have the United Nations saying we’re in control of food distribution but the United Nations is not taking the pro-active role that they should be taking. And you have a Haitian president saying he’s in charge and the Americans being politically correct and saying they will work under him. This is all going to lead to a situation of utter chaos. I can’t get all my trucks in from the Dominican Republic because I have no guarantee that the people driving them are not going to be macheted to death on the way down. I can’t let my doctors and nurses out on the street of Port-au-Prince.”

According to some aid agencies, the chaotic response was not only failing to save lives, it was also probably costing lives. Military flights had been given priority at the airport, meaning that several planes carrying medical aid were unable to land and had to be turned away. Benoit Leduc, operations manager for Médecins sans Frontières, reported that they had lost 48 hours because of those access problems, with three planes full of medical supplies and two carrying expert personnel delayed. This had in turn delayed hundreds of critical, lifesaving operations, by those two days. It’s impossible to say how many could have been saved, but with the high rates of infection and septicaemia, time was not on anyone’s side.

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Planes carrying aid at Port-au_Prince airport. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Time also contributed to another factor; one that’s often called “Haiti fatigue”. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, many people all around the world were keen to help, and aid flooded towards the island. However, because the infrastructure to accept it was not in place, it didn’t seem to be making any difference. That meant that many people got tired of trying to help. A lot of aid organisations left within a few months; the problems that they’d been tackling remained.

Even today, nine years after the earthquake, Haiti is still a poor and vulnerable country which depends on international aid to tackle ongoing natural disasters, food insecurity, overpopulation and lack of sanitation. The country’s recovery – not only from the earthquake, but from everything else it’s been through – will not be quick, and will require sustained help from its neighbours, not just when it’s in the headlines.

Meanwhile, the fault zones beneath Haiti remain active; another earthquake, recorded at magnitude 5.9, hit the northern part of the country in October 2018, killing eighteen and injuring over five hundred.

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