Naturally Disastrous Implications: 2010 Haiti Earthquake

Haiti Earthquake | Destruction in Port-au-Prince after a 7.2 earthquake on January 17, 2010 | Photo by Mark Pearson, courtesy of Flickr

On January 12, 2010, you are enjoying a simple Tuesday evening with family in Haiti when all of a sudden the earth trembles beneath your feet. You look around to see whether anyone else is noticing this when the ground roars with fury and a frenzy of panicked people run in all directions seeking safety. The poorly constructed buildings and crumbling infrastructure on the island collapse immediately from this massive 7.0 earthquake on the Richter scale. You are frightened by the immediate danger but as the shaking slows, you now worry how this will affect your already impoverished country. This experience was shared by all Haitians that night. Shaken to the core and barely able to get up from the rubles, another disaster strikes just 8 days later on January 20, 2010: a second earthquake destroys anything that was still standing in the region with an earthquake of a magnitude 6.1 this time. In the following years, earthquakes and aftershocks continued to rattle the island while three hurricanes battered the landscape one after the other, leading this very poor nation’s hope to sink even lower. According to the Haitian government, the 2010 earthquake killed about 316,000 people and forced more than a million residents from their homes.1 The successive disasters that followed raised both the death toll and the numbers of people displaced and destitute.

Destruction in the city on January 17, 2010 | courtesy of Mark Pearson

Haiti is unique in its origins as the country has been plagued by a multitude of tragedies and setbacks with a combination of poverty, natural disasters, and political instability throughout its history. Arawak and Carib natives inhabited the island of Hispaniola before the arrival of Europeans. Colonial settlers decimated the native population b inflicting brutal labor practices and having brought with them many diseases new to the Island. the native population dwindled within 50 short years of Columbus’ arrival. The French colonists exploited their position to turn the province into a sugar and coffee producing empire. By the 1780s, in Saint-Domingue, France produced and imported 40 percent of all sugar and 60 percent of the world’s coffee that were also supplied to Britain.2 For a brief time, the small colony had produced and exported more wealth than the entire continent of North America. As the native population dwindled due to the horrific conditions under French oppression, the need for African slave labor became a prominent aspect of Saint-Domingue’s economic development to sustain the high pace of production pace.2 Once slaves were brought in to replace the indigenous population, this dramatically altered the dynamics of oppression and exploitation on the Island and more specifically in Haiti.

Geographic location of Hispaniola | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

After European slave traders kidnapped West Africans from their homes, they dehumanized them and imprisoned them until loading them up on ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean.  As few as only a third of the African slaves arrived alive in Saint-Domingue. However, ships bringing slaves came regularly. By the mid 1700s their society formed a hierarchy based on skin color, class, and wealth. At the bottom of this hierarchy were African-born slaves. In 1789, slaves outnumbered the free population four-to-one, 452,000 slaves for a population of 520,000 total.4 Today, most Haitians can track their ancestry back to people brought over during the slave trade. During the later years of the 18th century, Saint-Domingue began to crumble as slaves began challenging the hierarchy to unravel its negative impacts. Slaves abandoned the plantations and established communities on the outskirts of the colony. Some of these communities formed militias creating a threat to the plantations which broke down the established order that thrived on slavery and exploitation. In the summer of 1802, Christophe Dessalines and Mulatto General Alexandre Pétion joined forces and launched a new mission to rid the island from the French. By late 1803, the French suffered severe losses from yellow fever, malaria, and combat. The French withdrew from the island in November 1803 after hundreds of years of colonial rule, Haiti became a new nation and declared an independent republic.4

Since its independence, Haiti has been plagued by corrupt leaders who give into their lust for power and who drafted and revised the nation’s constitutions to their advantage. These leaders treated the documents as their own personal charters. From 1915 to 1934, the United States felt it was important to occupy Haiti due to the instability the country suffered. In 1930 the United States supported Haiti’s elections and letting the citizens speak for themselves. After the brutal assassination of Haiti’s President in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson believed it was necessary to have troops to occupy Haiti until 1934. There have been numerous attempts by leaders to help build Haiti’s fragile infrastructure. Unfortunately, these attempts were poorly advised due to the poor leadership that Haiti had. Haiti’s poorly built infrastructure was a big factor in how the 2010 earthquake was able to cause so much devastation and loss. “The Haiti earthquake devastated the infrastructure including essential services and facilities of Port-au-Prince. Schools, hospitals, and government buildings collapsed. Many of the buildings were damaged because of poor construction or bad designs since they were not earthquake-resistant. The National Palace, the Presidential residence, lay in ruins. Besides Port-au-Prince and its suburbs, other cities that suffered heavy damage included Grand Goâve, Jacmel, Léogâne, Miragoâne, and Petit Goâve. Perhaps one of the most devastating implications of the 2010 earthquake was how much of Haiti’s main airport and other ports of entry suffered from severe damage which slowed the arrival of assistance from foreign countries who had sent humanitarian aid.6

2010 Haiti earthquake USAID intensity map 2 | Courtesy US Agency for International Development

 

Before the 2010 earthquake, Haiti only saw very low level of socio-economic development. Data from the Human Development Index value showed in the year 2000 Haiti ranked 134th out of 166 countries. “More than half of the population of Haiti was living in extreme poverty prior to the earthquake. Nearly half of the population had no access to healthcare and over 80% had no clean drinking water. Chronic malnutrition affected nearly a fifth of children up to 6 years of age in Port-au-Prince in 2009. There were higher levels of malnutrition in other regions.” (Echevin).7

The 2010 earthquake caused more devastation and loss than any other earthquake in the last two centuries in Haiti. The earthquake had added to the severe struggles of one of the most densely populated and least developed countries in the Western Hemisphere. The earthquake began tearing the earth apart 15 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince and is an area that lies directly between two tectonic plates. The quake had so much power that people had reported feeling the earthquakes tremble in areas like Florida. In the following weeks after the quake scientist had observed more than 50 aftershocks.8

Destroyed homes in downtown Port-au-Prince on Feb. 27, 2010 | Courtesy of ….

The 2010 earthquake shocked all the people living in Haiti as it took them by surprise. Ferrero Dessources was sitting down watching t.v in his living room while his wife and children were in another room of the house. He said that “In my neighborhood, a house collapsed and seven family members died,”  and following the earthquake chaos and screaming ensued. People ran out into the streets screaming and crying hysterically in fear for their lives not knowing what to do to find safety. The earthquake brought terror and destruction with people injured all around.9

Following the 2010 earthquake, in the first 6 years since the disaster Haiti had lost a total of 6 billion dollars in GDP. There is a multitude of reasons for this significant decrease. Haiti has suffered economically because of the large amount of output losses in the services sector. Their retail and tourism numbers tremendously, the natural disasters contracted the economy by 25%. A vast amount of commercial buildings, such as hotels and restaurants, were either damaged or completely torn off their foundation in the center of Port-Au-Prince. The repercussions of the destruction impacted Haiti for decades to come. In such a low-income country large reductions in amounts of income gave the fatal blow.  As a result, Haiti’s uphill climb became even steeper and made it more difficult to recover.7

Haiti’s agricultural sector took a significant hit to its production. Although, it was not as severely impacted as the service sector because the 2010 earthquake had its epicenter so close to the capital city where most of their service sector business thrived before. Their agricultural sector is more geographically dispersed and their agriculture is not as reliant on the buildings that were destroyed. After the earthquake, agricultural production came to an abrupt halt. This was due to the earthquake splitting their roads apart and slowed down transport. During the aftermath, a deadly cholera outbreak forced the population to favor imported goods over domestically grown food linked to their fear of a further fear of getting sick. On a positive note, Haiti’s manufacturing sector had rebounded more quickly than all the other sectors had, which was good because it suggested that the country was successful in rebuilding these businesses also damaged by the earthquake.7

The 2010 earthquake negatively impacted Haiti’s trade market as well. Consumption post-earthquake came primarily from imported goods and services that supported Haiti. The loss of productive capacity made space for aid and imports. The growing demand and needs for products such as building supplies in order to rebuild Haiti’s infrastructure. The deterioration in its external balance of trade continued. There were already low levels of energy and electricity use throughout the developing country of Haiti.  The desire to follow their upward trend on developing and increasing electricity use saw a glimmer of hope and temporarily stagnated after the earthquake. Fortunately, The trend upward soon came from 2010 to 2012. After 2012 the trend flattened due to the structural issues that prevent Haiti from delivering elctricity.7

There has been no shortness of controversy following the 2010 earthquake. The United States sent troops to help in the humanitarian efforts. However, Haitians did not receive them with grace. The citizens of Haiti felt that it was a U.S invasion because soldiers are trained to kill and not provide humanitarian relief. Haitian citizens thought this was yet another U.S armed forces invasion for domination and conquest. This was a situation they were familiar with since the U.S occupied Haiti from 1915-1934. Haitians deeply despised the U.S’s strong-arm tactics because they felt that the U.S did what they wanted, when they wanted without consideration of the people around them. For example, a Haitian citizen felt that they were pushed aside like trash and given no second thought when they were working on a damaged control tower and the U.S came to take over the airport. Haitians became livid when the U.S government blocked first responders from landing. They felt that they were not independent because they would need U.S clearance to land in Haiti. Based on their past experiences, Haitian citizens assumed the U.S was using the natural disaster to impose its own agenda.9

International humanitarian efforts attempted to restore Haiti from the wrath of the 2010 earthquake. The United Nations and the International Federation of the Red Cross led the way by sending doctors, supplies, as well as relief workers to aid Haiti in recovering from the devastation. There was a system in which people from all over the world were able to make donations via their mobile phones to Haiti. In an effort to help Haiti, creditors canceled the debt that the country owed them which totaled close to one billion dollars. A United Nations donor conference in New York City accumulated generous pledges of $9.9 billion, with $5.3 billion to be used during the first two years of reconstruction efforts. A total of six billion dollars were disbursed to the country in 2012 but a large portion was left unspent.14

The situation for Haiti looked like they were finally on their way back on one very unfortunate day in October 2016, Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Haiti. 145 mile per hour winds swept through the country devastating everything in its path and effectively destroying all the years of work that Haiti had put into reconstructing itself. The winds were so powerful, people were swept off ledges, destroying so much and killing 1,000 people, living more than 175,000 homeless. The Citizens of Haiti had to resort to living in caves to have some shelter. Unfortunately, hurricanes are common occurrences for Haiti and the region. So, they can never catch a break. The situation felt similar to the 2010 earthquake. Once again, the bridges were destroyed preventing aid workers from getting across, and instead they had to labor to reach places that became inaccessible because of flooding and collapsed bridges. To add to this everlasting problem of sequential natural disasters, Haiti lacked a leader in office since that February. Corrupt leadership and violence marred the election and the results were thrown out. A new election had been scheduled to take place in November of 2016 but Hurricane Mathew disrupted this plan and added to the growing list of problems for Haiti.15

Many often wonder why the neighboring Dominican Republic forges ahead with growing development while Haiti still struggles to surmount round after round of natural disasters. A major reason is that in this particular case, geography matters. Haiti faces a more difficult set of environmental challenges than the Dominican Republic. The island’s ecology supports the cultivation of tropical cash crops such as sugar, bananas, coffee, tobacco, cotton, indigo, and sisal in both territories. Haiti has a smaller area suitable for intensive agriculture than the Dominican Republic. The mountain slopes cause the thinning of the soil which recover more slowly. Haiti is situated on the western half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola finding itself in the path of the many deadly tropical storms that make their way through the Caribbean Sea. Environmental degradation is largely the result of poverty and underdevelopment that Haiti faced in the 20th century as key factor for why cannot recover as fast.16

Haiti remains an LDC (least developed country) because since the country began, it combines corrupt leadership focused on enriching itself while the populations battled to survive numerous natural disasters striking their country one after another. Fortunately, there is hope for Haiti. New rehabilitation efforts have focused on sustainability rather than quick fixes washed away with each hurricane. Haiti’s situation keeps improving even if very slowly and the longer amount of time that will pass before any other natural disaster will further assist in staying on track.

  1. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, Haiti Earthquake of 2010, (World Book, Inc., Chicago, 2018), 1.
  2. Library of Congress, History of Haiti (Nations online, 2021), 1.
  3. Library of Congress, History of Haiti (Nations online, 2021), 1.
  4. Library of Congress, History of Haiti ( Nations online, 2021), 1.
  5. Library of Congress, History of Haiti ( Nations online, 2021), 1.
  6. Library of Congress, History of Haiti ( Nations online, 2021), 1.
  7. Rohan Best and Paul J. Burke, Macroeconomic Impacts of the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti, (Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2019), 1.
  8. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, Haiti Earthquake of 2010, (World Book, Inc., Chicago, 2018), 1.
  9. The Haiti Earthquake, Diane Andrews Henningfeld, (Gale, a Cengage Company, 2013), 89, 147.
  10. Rohan Best and Paul J. Burke, Macroeconomic Impacts of the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti, (Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2019), 1.
  11. Rohan Best and Paul J. Burke, Macroeconomic Impacts of the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti, (Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2019), 1.
  12. Rohan Best and Paul J. Burke, Macroeconomic Impacts of the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti, (Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2019), 1.
  13. The Haiti Earthquake, Diane Andrews Henningfeld, (Gale, a Cengage Company, 2013), 89, 147.
  14. Richard Pallardy, Humanitarian Aid, (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2021), 1.
  15. Bryan Brown, Patricia Smith, and Azam Ahmed, Haiti In Crisis, (New York Times Upfront, 2016) 1.
  16. Frankema, Ewout, and Aline Masé, An Island Drifting Apart. Why Haiti Is Mired in Poverty While the Dominican Republic Forges Ahead, (Journal of International Development, 2013), 1.

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3 Responses

  1. I remember when the earthquake happened although I was barely 8 or 9 and I couldn’t really understand what was happening yet. I could tell it was bad because my family kept saying poor people. Now that I know fully and understand they truly are a poor people always going through some form of disaster like that hurricane from not to long ago.

  2. I liked this article because it talked alot about what we learned in my SMC: Others class. Our conversation throughout the semester explored the disaster in Haiti as well as the repurcussions of this event. In my opinion Haiti has alot of resources it could utilize to gain a global stronghold and economic gain however; Haiti will never thrive unless the government is stable and as this article highlights, it has been a struggle. Political leaders in Haiti have turned out to be corrupt and when this occurs it is very hard to rebuild properly.

  3. very informative article, and catchy introduction. I felt that I am in the earthquake for a while.

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