Haiti earthquake

By Daniel Collins 14/01/2010

The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that Haiti on Tuesday is estimated to have killed more than 100,000 people. With the collapse of hospitals and impoverished emergency services, fatalities will continue to mount.

In disasters like this, unless you have particular expertise in disaster response, donating to the Red Cross is the best thing you can do. Either NZ Red Cross or, probably better, the American Red Cross.

Disasters like this can be broken down into several phases.

Phase 1 – The initial earthquake and aftershock levels buildings, immediately killing and injuring a huge number of people. Infrastructure such as power or water supplies are damaged or destroyed, as are service providers such as hospitals and security.

Phase 2. Search and rescue begins immediately, at least by the locals. Fatalities continue as the injured are unable to get necessary treatment. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas; its vulnerability is high and resilience extremely low. While the country remains in shock, international attention starts to bring disaster relief, which is best aimed at treating the injured and supplying food and water. Since this is Haiti, international aid will also come in the form of security. Low-level crime begins, though it will be tempered by culture and available resources to loot.

Phase 3. Search and rescue is now supported by international teams. Most of those injured during phase 1 have either died or are stable. Public health will begin to be a problem due to the many corpses. Corpse removal and mass burial begins. International aid subsides a little, with the balance shifting to restoring life-support services (power and water). Low-level crime continues, but given the willingness for the international community to send security personnel to Haiti, it will not get out of hand. The initial shock will transition into a variety of other emotions, ranging from fatalism and depression to courage. The flow of international concern will play a significant role here.

Phase 4. Post-disaster reconstruction. Haiti has no capacity for this, so it will again be supported by international aid. Corpse removal continues. Public health is still a concern. Attention will spread from life-supporting services to longer-term services: rebuilding hospitals, roads, schools. While international donations will have fallen off, they are still extremely valuable. Used wisely, they can be administered in ways that reduce the impacts of “the next one” – earthquake resistant hospital buildings at the top of the list. Aid will now be directed at rebuilding what little economic and agricultural activities Haiti can sustain.

For continuing coverage, as well as historical articles that can provide a social context for the disaster, see the New York Times’ Haiti archive.

For footage and images of Haiti between phase 1 and phase 2, see BBC and NYT.

For on-going collation of facts, visit Wikipedia.

For a basic description of Haiti’s geological setting, visit Highly Allochthonous.

My thoughts go out to those affected.

Update 14/1/10: I was remiss not to mention shelter. Phase 1: In this size of earthquake, many people would have lost their homes, and as the aftershocks roll on, survivors would have gathered important resources and found places to sleep – perhaps makeshift, perhaps in less-than-ideal locations. Phase 2: International aid brings in tents, tarps and blankets. If fitting, a tent city may emerge in an open space, though I imagine people in Haiti will just continue to retrofit what they have. Phase 4: Rebuilding begins, even before all debris is removed. While most buildings will look as they were before the earthquake, I expect the magnitude of the impacts this time will encourage rebuilding with more resistant structures for the more important functions (e.g., hospitals, government).

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