Disasters: One Year After the Haiti Quake, The Struggle to Rebuild Stronger

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Residents watch as a bulldozer razes a collapsed building. Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

One of the surprising facts about the devastating earthquake in Haiti, which struck the island country a year ago today, is that by seismic standards it wasn’t all that big. The temblor was 7.0 on the Richter scale—strong, but hardly record-breaking. The earthquake that hit Chile a month and a half later was an 8.8—some 500 times more powerful than the Haiti’s quake. Yet while the Haiti temblor may have killed more than 300,000 people and virtually leveled the capital of Port-au-Prince, the Chile quake killed less than 1,000 people. Some of that was due to location—the Haiti quake was centered just off the heavily populated capital, while the Chile quake’s epicenter was a bit offshore and southwest of the capital of Santiago. But the biggest difference was a simple and fatal one: buildings. Chile, though hardly a rich country, is accustomed to serious quakes, and the government enforces strong building standards. Even before the quake, however, Haiti was desperately poor with an often corrupt government. Building standards didn’t even enter the picture, and when the quake struck, structures collapsed into coffins, as I wrote last year:

Haiti, the poorest country in the western Hemisphere, had nothing — what building codes it had were unenforced, police and other emergency personnel were almost nonexistent and many of its people were already in ill health. “Haiti was totally set up for this catastrophe,” says Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, an NGO that has worked in Haiti. “I was amazed there wasn’t even more destruction.”Haiti was, quite literally, a disaster waiting to happen, and its fate shows that in the 21st century, even more than in the last, the toll of a natural catastrophe is less a matter of the power of the storm or earthquake than the state of the people who suffer it. That means that a long-term priority for rebuilding — and rebuilding stronger — will be the building stock itself, because that makes the difference between life and death in a temblor.

“Earthquakes don’t kill people,” says John Mutter, a seismologist and disaster expert at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “Bad buildings kill them.” And Haiti had some of the worst buildings in world. There are building codes, but in a country that has been ranked as the 10th most corrupt in the world, enforcement is lax at best. The concrete blocks used to construct buildings in the capital are often handmade, and are of wildly varying quality. “In Haiti a block is maybe an eighth of the weight of a concrete block that you’d buy in the U.S.,” says Peter Haas, the executive director of the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG), an NGO that has worked on buildings in Haiti. “You end up providing buildings quickly and cheaply but at great risk.”

So a year on, has Haiti begun to build back stronger? Unfortunately, as my colleague Tim Padgett writes in a piece from Port-au-Prince, there’s hardly enough building, period:

The quake drew a remarkable emergency response from the international community. It also prompted ambitious plans to reconstruct, even reinvent, the hemisphere’s poorest nation — to “build it back better,” as the mantra went. “But the recovery process really hasn’t begun yet,” argues Leslie Voltaire, an urban architect and presidential candidate. Two-thirds of the 1.5 million Haitians left homeless by the quake still live in tents, and fewer than half the 45,000 t-shelters that the U.N. and other housing organizations had hoped to build by now have been erected.

The biggest impediment to the reconstruction is the most basic. “Nothing can really be done,” Voltaire notes, “until the rubble is removed.” And only 5% of the up to 22 million cubic yards of heavy debris has been tackled. While it took more than two years to clear less than half that amount of rubble from the Indonesian province of Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, at the current rate of removal, it could take another 19 years to clear Haiti.

That’s sad news for Haitians, and another reminder of the “disaster divide” that makes natural catastrophes so much more painful for poor countries as it does for rich ones, whatever the event. (It should also prompt relief agencies to think about shifting some of their resources from disaster relief to disaster prevention, though donations may not flow as generously for the cause of workable building codes as, for example, emergency field hospitals.) But changes are happening slowly on the ground in Port-au-Prince. Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity has spent the year creating a rebuilding center in Haiti, and assisting in the reinforced reconstruction of schools and other structures, all the while helping nearly 40,000 people. But that’s just the beginning, even though it’s already been a year. The road to reconstruction will be a long one for Haiti, but if it’s not done right this time, all that work—and more lives—could be lost when the next disaster hits. And there’s always a next one.