Haiti's geography makes it prone to massive storms and earthquakes
It's also a poor nation that lacks the resources to weather disasters
A few months after the massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I stood on the terrace of my hotel and looked out onto the Champs de Mars plaza, a central square in Port-au-Prince that had become an encampment for people who’d lost their homes.
It was May and the skies looked ominous as a storm hurtled toward the Haitian capital. What would become of all the Haitians left homeless in the quake, I wondered. How would they make it through the rainy season?
That storm, of course, paled in comparison to the force of Hurricane Matthew, which pummeled Haiti on Tuesday with 145 mph winds and heavy rain.
The worst hit was the southern port city of Les Cayes, but all of Haiti’s 10 million people were exposed to danger. Among those, some 60,000 people still live in the post-quake camps that journalists referred to as “makeshift.” The International Organization for Migration estimates 45 such camps still exist in the Port-au-Prince area.
Somehow, they became permanent; they became “home” for those who had nowhere to go. Thousands more live in flimsy homes that can easily wash away.
I tried to imagine what that must feel like: to be huddled with babies and children under plastic sheeting or a patched-together roof with little between you and the ground in the fury of a Category 4 hurricane.
Matthew was another “catastrophe,” the word Haitians used when they spoke of the earthquake.
It hardly seemed fair that Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, should be punished this way again.
Over the centuries, Haitians have died because of slavery, dictatorships, violence, corruption, mismanagement and disease. And they have died in earthquakes, storms and floods. Two years before the 2010 quake, 800 people were dead and damages totaled $1 billion as three hurricanes and a tropical storm hit Haiti in a matter of four weeks.
And then came the 7.0 magnitude quake that killed as many as 200,000 people. Walking around Port-au-Prince in its aftermath, I saw one apocalyptic block after another. There was nothing left.
Haiti’s geographic location in the Caribbean and on the Gonave microplate makes it vulnerable to natural disasters; it is considered the fifth most disaster-prone country in the world. But that doesn’t fully explain why Hurricane Matthew may exact such a grave toll.
In many ways still reeling from the 2010 earthquake, Haiti simply lacks the resources to prepare for such destruction.
Some Haitians I spoke with then actually saw the quake as a new beginning. This was a chance to rebuild the country all shiny and new. And indeed, the world promised Haiti $13 billion to rebuild.
But the optimism faded as fast as it had risen and the reality is that there is little to show for the billions pledged.
Why? The answers are, of course, long and complicated. Journalist Jonathan Katz provided his take in a 2013 book, “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.”
Katz says 93% of the money went to foreign aid agencies, including the United Nations. Granted, the Haitian government was too weak to handle massive recovery efforts just after the quake but in subsequent months, Katz argues, the money should have been channeled to Haitians who know best how to rebuild their own country. As it stands, little was done in the way of building local structures that would help Haiti respond to a future disaster, like Hurricane Matthew.
In 2016, 60% of Haitians still live in poverty; half do not know how to read or write or have access to health care. Consider that only one in four Haitians have use of a toilet.
On top of everything, an ongoing post-quake cholera epidemic that has already killed 10,000 people and affected another 800,000 is sure to get worse after Hurricane Matthew.
On the first anniversary of the earthquake, I returned to Haiti and often on my walks down the streets of Port-au-Prince, I heard people taking God’s name or chanting the Lord’s Prayer. On Sundays, large crowds congregated before the carcass of the Cathedrale Notre Dame de L’Assomption, a magnificent church that took 30 years to build and only 35 seconds to come tumbling down.
Many of those people told me they’d lost their loved ones, their homes, their things. But they had their faith.
I can imagine that in the aftermath of the hurricane, Haitians will again struggle to see their future. The destruction will come into plain sight. More Haitians will die.
A year after the earthquake, the Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat wrote that “in Haiti, people’s spirits never really die.” I learned that to be true from spending time with Haitians. And it is what will carry them now.