Haiti Earthquake

On January 12th, 2010 a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck 25km west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The earthquake affected approximately 3 million people, and sadly, the death toll is an estimated 316,000. After the earthquake, over 19 million cubic meters of debris and rubble was left in Port-au-Prince, which could fill a line of shipping containers from London to Beirut!

Debris, rubble and downed power lines litter the streets in Port-au-Prince days after the massive earthquake in Haiti. (Photo by Jorge Silva/Reuters)
Debris, rubble and downed power lines litter the streets in Port-au-Prince days after the massive earthquake in Haiti. (Photo by Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Haiti sees flooding and hurricanes quite often, and while a large earthquake had not happened in hundreds of years, it is no surprise a large earthquake occurred. Haiti sits in the midst of the Caribbean and North American plates which have been pushing against each other for some time. In fact, Haiti had not experienced such a severe earthquake since 1860, leaving many people unaware, under-educated, and unprepared. To mark the four year anniversary of the quake, here’s a look back at the crisis, and how it relates to emergency preparedness and response on a global scale today.

Media and Communication: Many people took to social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, to discuss Haiti, locate loved ones, or post updates on their status if in Haiti themselves. Crisis mapping sites became more prevalent after the earthquake as people used the tool to submit their eyewitness accounts and “post” the location of those updates onto a visual map to share with the world. Furthermore, not only did people take to the digital world for information, but tools for text fundraising presented a massive change to how donations are collected. Over $21 million was raised in $10 text-based donations for the Red Cross, and surprisingly, more people donated via text than phone call or email for the disaster.

As is normally the case with technology in an emergency, land lines were the first to go down in Haiti, but for many, email and SMS were still reliable means of communication. Reynold Guerrier, a network engineer at the Haitian Association for the Development of Information and Communication Technology stated, “I don’t know how, but most of the network infrastructure survived.” Like many disasters before it, the Haiti earthquake demonstrated our reliance on technology to communicate and respond after a large scale emergency.

Preparedness and Response: There were several issues with emergency response on both an individual and country wide scale in Haiti. When the earthquake first struck, many residents had no idea what to do, and ran back into their homes if they were outside. However, with the poorly built structures, many homes collapsed, likely contributing to the high death toll. Clearly, natural disaster education could have made the world of a difference here.

As a whole, Haiti inherently poses a number of challenges to emergency response. The country is based on an island with approximately 9 million residents to care for. Yet, as the poorest country in the Caribbean, the government does not have the power or money to invest in a more systematic emergency response effort as well as infrastructure itself. After the earthquake, many makeshift grave sites, and trauma centers had to be created, often on a whim. For most countries, a crisis plan requires comprehensive recovery strategies should a natural disaster or other emergency occur. Plans of where shelters will be built, and how much food, aid and supplies will be stocked there, and how people can connect with their loved ones, are all the most immediate concerns after a disaster. However with minimal resources, it was difficult for the Haiti government to coordinate an effective response, which severely affected the transition to recovery for residents.

Thankfully, since 2010, Haiti has found some funds to dedicate to emergency preparedness. The government has worked to better stabilize roads, homes and buildings being built to help withstand any future earthquakes or erosion. They’ve also identified evacuation routes for residents, and the Haitian Red Cross now runs a weekly radio program to promote preparedness within communities. If the country were to face a large scale emergency again, these initiatives alone would have a tremendous positive impact.

Boats are filled with evacuees to leave Port-au-Prince a week after the earthquake. (Photo by Damon Winter/The New York Times)
Boats are filled with evacuees to leave Port-au-Prince a week after the earthquake. (Photo by Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Support: Many countries around the world came to offer aid after the earthquake struck Haiti. The United States provided medical evacuations for critically injured Haitian victims, but ended up halting those evacuations over a dispute on who would be paying the bill for the care. Many evacuees were taken to hospitals in Florida, but with a lack of planning on an evacuation front, some countries felt they could not take on the task. While evacuations did continue at a later date, those who were in need of critical care had their lives placed on hold during the evacuation halts.

The need for preparedness on a global scale is most valuable before any crisis, and not in the chaotic moments after. Preparedness is all about planning and education and is something that should be communicated back to residents no matter which country they reside in. Locally, keeping death tolls down, containing the issues to prevent further problems, and maintaining order are all seen as positive achievements. On an international scope, providing relief is much easier when there are detailed plans and a means for communication in place, including ways to reach local governments and citizens in the affected country.

Emergency preparedness and dependable infrastructure is essential to all countries, not just first world countries. With the connectivity many people in the world have today from the use of the internet and cell phones, it is so important, and very possible to spread awareness and education on emergency preparedness. On some level, there is always a way to reach people: social media, television, radio, newspaper, or even word-of-mouth. It is cases such as the Haiti Earthquake that call for a strong and severe need for a global system that focuses on preparedness, response and recovery.

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