On Saturday, August 14, around 8:30 am, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake shook Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, the earthquake had been felt quite strongly, and although no substantial damages had been recorded right away, a wind of panic spread throughout the city as this earthquake brought back the horrible memories of the 2010 one that destroyed the capital and killed about 300,000 people. But a couple minutes later, the news broke: The south peninsula of the island has been destroyed. Again.
After being destroyed in 2016 by Hurricane Matthew, the “Great South” is going through hell again with this earthquake. The epicenter was 12 km away from the city of Saint-Louis du Sud. Haiti is divided into 10 geographical regions that are called “departments,” and three of them have been strongly affected: Sud, Grande-Anse, and Les Nippes. Major cities like Les Cayes, Jérémie, Barradères, Lazile, Anse-à-Veau, and countless others have also been destroyed. In some of those places, it has been reported that up to 90% of the houses have collapsed. The estimations for today are horrible, close to 2000 deaths, and 10,000 wounded. And still counting.
LIVING A NIGHTMARE
Thousands of survivors have lost their families and friends in a matter of seconds. A lot of them are injured and most certainly traumatized for life. Some people were trapped under the rubble of their own house for days. Imagine listening to loved ones crying for help without being able to get them out of their concrete prison, which is slowly turning into their graves.
On top of losing everything they had, including their families, numerous survivors have to live and sleep outside now since they can’t get inside the damaged houses. They lack everything: Food, water, medical assistance, and hope. To make matters worse, Haiti has been hit by tropical storm Grace two days after the earthquake. The disaster victims, already outside, had to face heavy rains for a whole night and the day that followed. It is a painful sight to see. While they have received some tents, those are inadequate under these dire conditions. Most have taken to seeking refuge in their cars or wherever they can find shelter.
THE GROUND REALITY
The response from the Haitian society has been quick and heartwarming. Everyone took it upon themselves to do something. Civil society, social and political organizations, celebrities, athletes, ordinary citizens, and the diaspora, all came together in various ways. Youn, a social movement, organized a blood drive. A local restaurant offered one free meal a day. Local farmers sent food to localities that had been hit the hardest. Numerous fundraising campaigns and events were also launched that provided immediate and necessary relief. In an uplifting show of solidarity, all Haitians started to organize themselves to send help to the South.
As Haitians clear the rubble and try to find their loved ones, their resiliency shines through, but they still need the international community’s help. Will the world step up?
Despite the good sentiment, there is a lot left to do. While Maniche, Camp-Perrin, Torbeck, Jérémie, Bomon, île Cayimites, Saint-Jean du Sud, and others in the South are in the most need, some regions within the Northwest, North East, and Center departments are also in desperate need of assistance but are difficult to access. This situation is made worse by the fact that the main road that leads to the South is being blocked by the gangs in Martissant for months, who essentially converted the area into a warzone, forcing thousands of Haitians to flee. The South, therefore, was already cut off from the rest of the country way before the latest devastating earthquake. Now everything and everyone sent there has to be by plane or helicopter. As a result, help can’t reach the people in need on time.
Additionally, this whole tragedy is taking place in a very unstable political environment. The widely contested president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated on July 7, and the investigation is still ongoing. The country, which was already facing a deep and complex political crisis, is now without a leader. Moïse was already ruling by decree, with no regards to the constitution. He had dissolved the parliament and in response, intense protests were being held throughout the country. At the moment of his death, therefore, he had no legal successor. The ex-Prime Minister Claude Joseph, President of Senate Joseph Lambert, and Dr. Ariel Henry, the prime minister nominated by Moïse right before his death, all claimed the leadership position after Moïse’s assassination. Henry eventually succeeded, mainly due to international support.
It is too early to tell if Henry is leading the country effectively through the aftermath of this month’s earthquake. Unfortunately, he still lacks legitimacy domestically as Haiti’s political parties, political organizations, civil society, and influential personalities have not accepted him. Elections are supposed to occur at the end of the year but may be delayed. And all of this is occurring against the backdrop of extreme gang violence and corruption.
We know that nobody can prevent an earthquake, but we can prepare for when it does. In fact, when a tragedy kills hundreds of thousands people and causes billions of dollars of damages, we have a moral responsibility to do everything possible to make sure that it doesn’t happen again and again — something the last government failed to do. In fact, the Moïse administration refused to make adequate reforms and take preventative measures that would prepare the country for another disaster. Some measures that should been taken include developing an urbanization plan and rebuilding cities according to it; constructing paraseismic buildings; training the population on how to react during a natural disaster, especially earthquakes, by having drills in schools, churches, and neighborhoods; establish a crisis response team with an effective implementation plan; strengthen healthcare facilities all over the island; maintain roads to ensure access to every part of the country; and fund scientific institutions that monitor earthquakes. Almost none of these reforms have been completed — and this is why Haitains remain vulnerable to earthquakes and other natural disasters.
The international community and nongovernmental organizations have also failed Haiti. Since 2010, more than $10 billion dollars have been injected in Haiti through those organizations with the mission of rebuilding the country. This was supposed to use the destruction of Haiti’s most important city as an opportunity to start over fresh and start a new trend of development. But the harsh truth is that Haiti has not been rebuilt, the country is not better prepared to face those situations and life is significantly worse for everyone living on the island.
For now, most victims are still waiting for some real intervention. They lack everything and their lives are quickly turning into a nightmare. While aid is coming, Haiti’s government wants to coordinate the operations on the ground through the Civil Protection Agency, which is primarily in charge of risk and disaster management in Haiti. Currently, however, the agency is overwhelmed and does not have the capacity to coordinate such a large relief effort.
As Haitians clear the rubble and try to find their loved ones, their resiliency shines through, but they still need the international community’s help. Will the world step up? We’re not waiting around for help, but we still need it.
Kinsley Jean is a political activist, student leader, and a member of a civil rights non-profit called Forward-Movement to Change Haiti Together!