Spoiled Jewel

Published March 2010, Top Story

Port-au-Prince, Haiti—The Haiti earthquake was devastating—but not just because of its level-7 magnitude. Other earthquakes have been far stronger.

The devastation was in large measure the consequence of other kinds of quakes—200 years of them.

The main jolt of January’s late afternoon quake shook the small island nation for about 20 seconds. Buildings by the thousands crumbled like cookies. The overcrowded capital, Port-au-Prince, was soon enshrouded with white dust rising from the vast ruins.

“It doesn’t get any worse,” says Dennis Mileti, head of the California state earthquake agency. And during the two weeks after the initial quake, there were more than 50 smaller “aftershocks.”

Other world cities have had worse earthquakes with far less destruction. That’s because most of Haiti’s houses are poorly built. One reason is the extreme poverty with its vast sums of feeble shanties. Another reason is the source of that poverty—Haiti’s extreme and longstanding lack of leadership, responsible conduct, and structure.

Haiti doesn’t even have building codes for safe and durable construction. Shacks weren’t the only victims of the January earthquake. Hospitals, hotels, cathedrals, and even the presidential palace crumbled too.

But poverty and its causes are just a couple of those “other kinds of quakes.” They are all man-made. And they have a long history.

Following is a brief summary of some of the major ones. But first:

Some History

Haiti was once a French colony—known as the “Jewel of the Antilles.” Its natural beauty and its wealth were legendary.

In fact, it was the richest colony in the entire world.

In those days, Haiti produced sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, indigo dye, and other products highly valued in Europe. They were shipped home to France, where large quantities were packaged and sold to other countries.

Haiti actually provided half of France’s economic wealth. And it was done on the backs of African slaves.

Then in 1804, Haiti’s slaves overthrew their French masters. Haiti became the very first independent black state in the world.

But the nation’s new leaders used their power to force the rest of their black brothers back into slavery. Other than that, they did not follow the ways of the French. Haiti descended into disarray and sometimes chaos. It has been that way ever since.

Instead of the Jewel of the Antilles, Haiti has long been the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Today its survival depends almost entirely on foreign aid.

The last two centuries have seen the destruction of the natural landscape, out-of-control crime, and probably the worst government corruption in the world. Much of the foreign aid over the decades has been pocketed by corrupt officials.

Since 1804, the nation has also seen a long list of cruel dictators and more than 30 coups.

Other Quakes

Here are some of the man-made “earthquakes” that left Haiti unprepared for January’s natural earthquake:

1) Poverty. The people of Haiti generally cannot afford what they would need for safer living.

2) Ignorance. Most Haitians are uneducated. Less than 10 percent can even read. Only about a third of Haitian children begin school at all. Hardly any get beyond 5th grade.

The overwhelming lack of knowledge leads to lack of progress—in medicine, engineering, agriculture, and even sanitation.

French is the official language of Haiti. So all official business is done in French. But less than 10 percent of the people can speak it.

What’s worse, most school textbooks are written in French and most classes are taught in French.

3) Lack of structure. For 200 years, Haiti’s governments have been irresponsible or worse. The nation’s roads are few and poor. Getting help to many areas or getting farm products to market is difficult or impossible.

Proper healthcare is not available to most people. There are few proper sewer systems. Very few households have electricity or running water. There are only a couple of fire stations.

4) Soil erosion and pollution. Haiti’s poor, uneducated masses have cleared much of the once beautiful mountains and hills of their trees. Wood is the nation’s only fuel for cooking. People have cut everything in sight without replanting.

That means deadly mudslides are common. Soil erosion pollutes the once-clear rivers.

5) Lack of law & order. Rampant crime has made Haiti even weaker. Drug trafficking and violence are widespread. Looters swarmed collapsed buildings almost immediately after the January quake.

This list only scratches the surface. Haitian culture is in such bad shape that seemingly common events can be disasters in Haiti.

Just since 2001, the United States has sent more than $16 million in aid to Haiti for 15 different official disasters.

In the words of Jonathan Katz, the Associated Press’s main reporter in Haiti, “For most people here, tragedy is more common than lunch.”