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  HOME | Caribbean

Ten Keys to Understanding Haiti a Decade after Catastrophic Earthquake

PORT-AU-PRINCE – Haiti, a Caribbean nation long mired in a spiral of underdevelopment, hunger, violence and frequent economic crises, is still struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake that occurred 10 years ago this Sunday and left more than 310,000 people dead.

Below are 10 keys for understanding what happened in one of the deadliest natural disasters in recent history and the current situation in the most impoverished country of the Americas.

1. Earthquake Facts

The epicenter of the Jan. 12, 2010, magnitude-7.0 quake – which was the most devastating temblor to affect Haiti in 168 years – was located in Leogane, a town 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) southwest of Port-au-Prince.

It was especially destructive because it happened near the surface at a depth of between eight and 13 kilometers.

The initial earthquake was followed over the ensuing 20 minutes by two aftershocks – of magnitude-6.0 and magnitude-5.7 – that exacerbated the damage.

2. Victims and Destruction

The earthquake’s proximity to the densely populated Port-au-Prince metropolitan area and the precarious state of the country’s buildings were key factors in what was an unprecedented catastrophe in the Caribbean nation.

The quake left nearly 316,000 dead and 350,000 others injured, caused thousands of homes to collapse and destroyed 60 percent of the country’s health-care infrastructure.

Key buildings such as the presidential palace, Parliament and the capital’s cathedral collapsed and still have not been rebuilt.

Damage was estimated at 120 percent of the country’s 2009 gross domestic product (GDP), or roughly $7.9 billion.

3. The Displaced

Nearly 1.5 million people were left homeless and had to be housed in some 1,500 temporary settlement camps.

Although 99 percent of the displaced have been resettled, 34,000 people remain in the “temporary” shelters and are suffering from severe sanitary deficiencies and lack regular access to potable water and electricity.

4. Recovery and Reconstruction Costs

At least $11.58 billion has been channeled to 2,552 reconstruction projects through the Haitian government’s External Assistance Management Module.

There has been a lack of oversight of funds managed through non-governmental organizations, with those resources often poorly administered.

Political scientist Jean Ronald Joseph of the Universite d’Etat d’Haïti told Efe that “management of the earthquake by the government of that era and also by the international community was a disaster. A humanitarian-aid business developed and a lot of money was stolen.”

5. Post-Earthquake Disasters

Haiti is one of the countries most vulnerable to natural disasters. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew struck the country’s southwestern region, causing 573 deaths and affecting some 2 million people.

The nation also suffered a severe outbreak of cholera, a disease introduced in 2010 by United Nations peace keepers from Nepal. A total of 520,000 people were infected and at least 7,000 died.

The epidemic was not completely brought under control until 2019.

6. Extension of the UN’s Mission

The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah), which began operating in 2004 after the coup that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was extended to 2017 because of the earthquake.

Before being replaced by a smaller police mission that finally concluded last October, it was one of the UN’s most controversial peacekeeping missions and viewed as an occupation force by its detractors.

Minustah was blamed for an outbreak of cholera and the focus of allegations of sexual abuse.

7. Allegations of Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

The UN has recognized the cases of 29 victims of sexual exploitation (including sex with minors) and abuse by peace keepers in Haiti.

A recent study by professors Sabine Lee and Susan Bartels also compiled 265 stories of Haitian children fathered by UN personnel and subsequently abandoned.

They learned of those stories by interviewing some 2,500 Haitians about the experiences of local women and girls living in communities that host peace support operations.

Lee and Bartels concluded that the fact that “10 percent of those interviewed mentioned such children highlights just how common such stories really are.”

8. A “Lost Decade”

Haiti has long been the poorest country in the Americas. Over the past 10 years, the country’s GDP per capita slightly improved from $662 to $765.

But the percentage of the population living on less than $2 a day remains stable at more than 60 percent.

“Ten years later, the situation in Haiti is worse in terms of the environment, urbanism and housing ... It was a lost decade,” Joseph said.

9. Constant Instability

Haiti has not had a government since March 2019, and the power vacuum will become more acute starting Monday, when the terms of the country’s lower-house lawmakers and a third of its senators expire (with no election currently scheduled to replace them).

President Jovenel Moise is currently in talks with the opposition on the formation of a unity government.

The country was racked by violent anti-government protests between September and November that virtually brought all activities of public and private institutions to a standstill.

Besides aggravating food insecurity, the crisis has sparked a recession and, according to the humanitarian medical NGO Doctors Without Borders, brought the nation’s health-care system to the brink of collapse.

10. Growing Insecurity

Numerous armed gangs, some with links to powerful politicians, have proliferated in recent years and control entire neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince and other cities.

Now having to make do without UN assistance, Haiti’s roughly 15,000 police officers – and 500 soldiers of its recently reinstated army – are struggling to combat the gangs.

Police also have been accused of committing indiscriminate massacres that killed dozens of civilians in 2018 and last year.


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