January 12, 2010 Haiti Quake

Updated 10/1/11

A 7.0 M Earthquake shook Haiti at 21:53 UTC (4:53 PM local time) Tuesday January 12, 2010. The epicenter was about 10 miles from the capital and major city, Port-au-Prince. Several large aftershocks occurred in the hours following the quake with a few continuing into the next couple of days. An additional aftershock a week later frightened the survivors and caused additional damage. The shallow focus (6.2 miles deep) and proximity to a large population center means that this quake affected as many as 3 million people who live in the area of strong shaking. As many as 310,000 people died, according to official sources,300,000 were injured and 1.3 million were left homeless. This quake is the second deadliest in recorded history. Many buildings, including a hospital, schools, the main prison, the cathedral, the Presidential Palace and the UN headquarters collapsed. Following the quake the streets of Port-au-Prince were lined with ruined buildings. The UN estimates that 75% of the city will have to be rebuilt. Most of the dead were buried in mass graves. For the first few days, bodies just piled up at the hospital and throughout the city.

Many government agencies were unable to function due to damage to their facilities and loss of their workers. The airport was back in operation soon, operated by the US, but the port sustained so much damage that it was impossible to unload large ships for over two weeks. The UN is now calling this quake the worst disaster it has dealt with because of the large amount of destruction and the inability of the government to respond. Most governmental functions are centralized in the capital city. Usually in a disaster the government can coordinate getting aid to the affected area. Here, the government was unable to do that because they were also affected by the quake. The UN estimates that it will take decades to rebuild.

Reports from the scene told of general devastation. Huge plumes of dust were hanging in the air. People wandered the streets, many of them bleeding looking for medical help but the hospitals were totally overwhelmed. Bodies were everywhere. There was no organized response. The government was been unable to provide much assistance. People did what they could but it wasn't enough. Aid shipments arrived at the airport but distribution systems were lacking to get food water and medical supplies where they were needed. The airport was quickly overloaded and some planes were diverted to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, 200 miles away. This has led to some international tensions, notably in the case of a Doctors without Borders field hospital from France, which was not allowed to land in Haiti. Many people did not receive any food, water or medical help for days after the quake, leaving them in desperate straits. People are living in the open or in huge tent cities. The Haitian government is encouraging people to leave the city and go back to their hometowns. As many as 500,000 have done that so far. They move in with friends or relatives but there is no work, inadequate housing and insufficient food.

People dug through the rubble with farm equipment, their bare hands and anything they can find to try to save people who have been trapped. After a couple of days, international rescue teams started to arrive and help in the effort. The rescue effort lasted 10 days, until January 22, when the focus shifted to an emphasis on humanitarian aid to the survivors. However, a few people were rescued in the following days.

An international conference is to be convened with the purpose of raising money for relief. US President Obama offered an immediate $100 million, with more to come later, and logistical support. Britain has promised $30 million, Sweden $67 million, France $28 million, South American governments $300 million and many more countries have contributed. The Canadian government is matching donations from Canadians, totaling over $67 million. Private donations amount to probably hundreds of millions of dollars as well, through high profile concerts and telethons and small scale efforts and individual donations to a wide variety of charities working in Haiti. Examples include businesses that donated all their proceeds for a day and stores that put out collection jars. The UN is coordinating aid, which is arriving from around the world. Turkey, which has suffered terrible earthquakes, was one of the many countries that sent rescue workers. There will be an international donors conference in March. Ordinary people from around the world have responded with millions of dollars in donations to a wide variety of aid organizations.

There is a growing international movement to help Haiti by forgiving its international debt. For the 200 years since the revolution that freed it from French colonialism, Haiti has been crippled in its development efforts by the need to repay large debts. First it was to repay France for slaves and other property freed during the revolution, later dictators "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier borrowed heavily to enrich themselves, leaving the country with the tab. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) not only extended loans for development projects that benefited the foreign companies that built them more than the poor people in Haiti. In addition, they imposed requirements to open trade with no restrictions. Rice farmers, for instance, were unable to compete with the cheap foreign rice that flooded in. As a result, people left their farms and moved to the cities, hoping for any kind of work. Now that they have to return to the countryside, they have lost the ability to feed themselves and are still dependent on foreign food, now in the form of charity, and in very short supply.

The US sent 10,000 armed troops to help and has assumed responsibility for air traffic control into the Port-au-Prince airport and is helping with security. Although people are grateful for the help, the sight of American troops, especially at the Parliament building, has caused some unease. The US has a long history of military intervention in Haiti, including almost 20 years of military occupation in the first half of the 20th Century. Cuba already had 300 doctors working in Haiti, who immediately started helping helping the injured. Cuba sent hundreds more medical personnel, including Haitians who had been in medical school in Cuba, and committed to a long term presence. Aid teams have arrived from around the world. UN peacekeepers already in Haiti were stretched thin but soon they were helping clear roads so supplies could get through. The UN headquarters was destroyed and many of their troops, including the head of mission were killed.

This is the largest quake to hit Haiti in 200 years and it was centered in the most heavily populated part of the country. In the hardest hit areas, most multi-story buildings collapsed. Many children were still in schools that collapsed. Buildings are not built for earthquake safety, hurricanes are a bigger concern. Most buildings are built of bricks or cement blocks, unreinforced. The materials are often produced as cheaply as possible, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, resulting in even weaker buildings, as builders try to keep costs down. The government is very weak and could not enforce building codes even if they had them. Shanty towns where the poorest Haitians live suffered comparatively less damage since the shanties were built of more flexible makeshift materials that rode out the quake better. When they did collapse the lighter weight meant that they caused fewer injuries than heavy cement buildings.

In the aftermath of the quake, up to 3 million people lived in makeshift camps among the rubble of their former homes. Even after aid started to arrive, it was difficult to distribute it to the people who need it most. The country became dependent on outside charities for basic food and water supplies. Existing water supplies were damaged and unfit to drink. The UN is planning to set up tent cities using up to 20,000 large heavy duty tents during the next few months. There is a great concern that there is adequate shelter by the time the rainy season starts in the spring. They expect to be feeding 2-3 million people indefinitely. Medical supplies and personnel have been in short supply ever since the day of the quake. Many people had serious injuries that were not treated for many days. With so many crushing injuries and lack of medicine to prevent infections, over 2,000 amputations were necessary, many of them under primitive conditions. Some patients were transferred to the Dominican Republic but hospitals there also filled to capacity. Some of the worst cases were airlifted to the US, stressing the healthcare systems in Florida. The airlifts were discontinued for a time when concerns over who would pay for the care led to a lack of hospitals that would accept them. Authorities in neighboring countries are concerned about being overwhelmed by refugees and are trying to discourage an exodus by boat.

Update October 30, 2010 - A cholera epidemic has broken out in Haiti, a country that has previously not suffered from that disease. Cholera is of special concern because thousands are still living in shanty towns and refugee camps without adequate sanitation or clean drinking water. Cholera is spread when sewage contaminates food or water supplies. The initial cases were around the Artibonite river in Northwest Haiti but cases have been reported nearer to Port Au Prince, where most of the camps are located. So far, over 300 deaths and 4100 cases have been reported. Aid workers are concerned that the toll could go much higher if the epidemic reaches the capital. It is not clear how the epidemic began because cholera has been rare in Haiti. There was a fear that UN peacekeeping troops from Nepal had brought the disease because cholera is common in that country. However, the UN says that the peacekeepers use sealed septic systems that could not contaminate local water supplies. However, since the quake there have been many people from many parts of the world coming to Haiti to help out who could have unwittingly spread the disease. It is also possible that it has existed in rural areas undetected for many years. Although there have not been diagnosed cases, diarrhea is not uncommon in Haiti. There is always a concern after a disaster that people living in camps under stress with damaged or non-existent systems for sewage disposal and water treatment will suffer from epidemics. The good news is that there are already teams of health workers on the scene educating people about how to avoid the disease.

This earthquake was roughly the same strength as the 1989 San Francisco quake, which killed less than 100 people. The damage was tremendously greater in Haiti. There were two main differences. The San Francisco quake's epicenter was in the mountains some 70 miles from the biggest population center. In Santa Cruz, closer to the epicenter, many of the old buildings downtown collapsed. The other difference is that in California, builders must follow stringent building codes that greatly diminish earthquake damage. Older un-reinforced masonry buildings collapsed but flexible wooden structures rode it out and reinforced buildings had the strength to withstand the shaking.

This earthquake occurred in the boundary region between the Caribbean and North American Plates. The Caribbean Plate is moving eastward relative to the North American plate. The ground shifted as much as three feet in places as the accumulated strain was released. The Caribbean Plate is located in between the larger North American and south American Plates. These plates are being created at the mid-Atlantic ridge where magma rises and spreads out in both directions pushing westward past the Caribbean Plate. Although the region is subject to earthquakes periodically, there has not been a large quake in that area since the 19th Century.

(See the Plate Tectonics page for more information on these processes.)(This article from the BBC explains how the quake occurred.) The US Geological Survey (USGS) is an invaluable resource in understanding and tracking earthquakes. See the USGS summary of this quake.

See also the following news stories:

* Haiti earthquake: Day by day (BBC 1/24/10)
* Haiti earthquake feared to have killed many (BBC 1/12/10)
* Haiti earthquake death toll 'may be 50,000'(BBC 1/15/10)
* Pictures of the immediate aftermath of the quake, Not for the squeamish (Radio Tele Ginen 1/12/10)
* In Pictures - Haiti Misery Goes On(BBC 1/16/10)
*Survivor's Stories(BBC 1/16/10)
* “The Sound of Screaming Is Constant”–Haiti Devastated by Massive Earthquake, Desperate Search for Survivors Continues(Democracy Now 1/14/10)
* Report from Haiti: Desperate Call for Aid with Rescue Equipment, Medicine, Food & Water in Short Supply(Democracy Now 1/14/10)
Cuba's aid ignored by the media? (Al Jazeera English 2/16/10)

* Haiti revival after quake could take generations says UN chief(Guardian 1/29/10)
* By foot and bus, Haitians return to native towns(AP 1/23/10)
* Health crisis in Haiti enters a deadly new phase(AP 2/9/10)
* Haiti devastation exposes shoddy construction(BBC 1/15/10)
* Logistical nightmare hampers Haiti aid effort(BBC 1/16/10)
* Frictions between nations rise over struggle of getting aid to Haiti(Washington Post 1/17/10)
* In Haiti, Desperation Mounts As Bottlenecks Slow Aid(NPR 1/17/10)
Rain brings more misery to Haiti earthquake survivors(The Guardian 2/19/10)

Haiti cholera outbreak causes not clear experts say(BBC 10/25/10)

Aid Agencies Fear Cholera Moves Toward Capital(BBC 10/27/10)

* US takes charge in Haiti — with troops, rescue aid(AP 1/15/10)
* As Haiti Toll Revised to 230,000, Journalist Reed Lindsay Reports on Scarcity of Aid in Devastated Port-au-Prince(Demoracy Now 2/10/10)
* Naomi Klein Issues Haiti Disaster Capitalism Alert: Stop Them Before They Shock Again(Democracy Now 1/14/10)
* Haiti, Forgive Us(Amy Goodman on Truthdig 2/9/10)