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Post-Disaster Recovery: Lessons from the 2010 Haiti earthquake

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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November 1, 1755 the city of Lisbon was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake followed by a tsunami, estimated 30.000-100.000 people died. For the first time in history a kind of crisis management was organized to deal with the aftermath of this disaster. King Joseph I commissioned the peer and permanent secretary Sebastian Jose Carvalho e Melo (1699-1782, rewarded later by the king for his service and declared Marques de Pombal) to supervise the rescue efforts for the injured, the disposal of the corpses and the rubble and the reconstruction of the city. Asked what to do, Melo responded:

Bury the dead and heal the living.

Melo didn’t hesitate and declared martial law – to dispose of the rubble in the streets the survivors were forced by the army to stay in the city and looters were executed in the streets.
Similar scenes occurred in San Francisco, more than 150 years later. Despite martial law was never proclaimed, the major authorized policeman and soldiers to shoot looting persons – “Obey orders or get shot” was the grim warning on some improvised signboards.
The earthquake and the firestorms of 1906 killed estimated 3.000 to 4.000 people, destroyed 28.000 buildings and the infrastructure of the entire city – but in a surprisingly rush people started reconstruction and three year later most of San Francisco was rebuild.

These examples show the two distinct phases of the aftermath of a disaster: in the emergency phase it is necessary to rescue people, care about the injured, clear the path for rescuers and recover the death. In a second moment the removal of debris and the reconstruction phase of the infrastructure starts. Despite the dramatic images that media will deliver from the first phase, it is often the second phase were most problems emerge.

January 12, 2010 on the island of Hispaniola occurred a 30 second long earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0.
In the aftermath more than 111 delegations of countries and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organization) arrived to the Republic of Haiti (heavily hit by the earthquake), 5 billion dollars were granted for the reconstruction in the first two years and ulterior 3 billion dollars came from private donors. However two years after the disaster only estimated 5-50% of the rubble is removed from the city of Port-au-Prince and thousands of people are still living in tends or refugee camps. What went wrong?

Based on the experience after the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, it was decided to institute a commission, which should overlook and coordinate the various efforts and projects in Haiti. However the NGOs are not obligated to report or present their various projects to the commission and therefore many NGOs avoid the long bureaucratically way and prefer to start their projects without consultation.

NGOs now face two main problems: they are forced to spend the granted money to receive ulterior funds and as result many invest the money in short term projects. Also the donors, countries – corporations – private persons, expect to see fast and impressive results. By doing so often the appearance surpasses the usefulness of a project. Many schools and hospitals already built in Haiti lack today the funds to pay the daily service and were closed. The few still operating schools and hospitals became rapidly overcrowded.
Similar problems are found in the refugee camps, were the capacity of latrines and other sanitary installations is often exhausted. Like the maintenance of such installations, also projects for the removal of debris in the streets are underfunded as they “lack appeal to the greater public”.

NGOs reply that the maintenance of basic infrastructure, like schools, hospitals and sanitary installations, should be the responsibility of the government. However the Haitian government is lacking funds and is weakened by corruption and the heavy loss of officers due the earthquake. Already the previous infrastructure was inadequate (and not earthquake-resistant) for the needs of so many people and now whiteout officers and with the land records lost it is even more difficult to remove debris from specific lots or rebuild infrastructure there.

Oddly enough not only oppressive bureaucracy can be devastating from an ethical point of view (Obey or Die), but also too few or wrong bureaucracy. No or too weak coordination is one reason that until today less than 2 billions of the donated 5 billions dollars were invested in Haiti and according to some estimates more than 12 billions are needed to rebuild a functioning economy.

Video 1. & 2. These two videos are more than a year old; however the interviews reveal some of the problems that still today can explain why reconstruction in Haiti is so slow.

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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