By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; A06
Haiti's massive earthquake could be the world's most devastating natural disaster since World War II in relation to the country's size and economy, causing as much as $14 billion in damage, according to a study released Tuesday by the Inter-American Development Bank.
The estimate is based on comparisons with about 1,700 other disasters around the world in recent decades. A more detailed, official estimate is expected in a few weeks. But the preliminary study gives a sense of the extraordinary rebuilding task that awaits the hemisphere's poorest country.
The U.S. government has committed over $500 million for relief efforts in Haiti since the Jan. 12 earthquake, and the Obama administration is expected to soon ask Congress for special funding for reconstruction there. Officials said the exact amount of the request hadn't been determined. But congressional sources said they expected it to be $1 billion or more.
Mark Schneider, who coordinated the American response to Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998, said $14 billion was "a relatively conservative figure" in estimating Haiti's reconstruction costs, since new structures cost more than old ones did.
He noted that about $6.3 billion was spent on rebuilding areas hit by Mitch, which killed about 10,000 people. The Haiti quake left at least 200,000 dead.
"You have the central political and economic core of the country essentially destroyed," said Schneider, who is now vice president of the International Crisis Group.
He said the U.S. government provided about $1 billion in aid to countries battered by Mitch, and should commit $3 billion to Haiti as part of a long-term commitment.
The development-bank study found that the death toll in the earthquake in Haiti dwarfed the toll in other natural disasters on a per-capita basis. Roughly 25,000 of every million Haitians died, compared with 772 deaths per million Indonesians in the 2004 tsunami, the report said.
The quake damage equaled 117 percent of Haiti's annual economic output; the comparable figure for Indonesia was about 2 percent, according to the study. (Indonesia was one of a dozen countries damaged by the tsunami).
"This disaster, given the size of Haiti . . . is the most devastating catastrophe that a country has experienced possibly ever," said Andrew Powell, an economist who is one of the study's authors.
The study used a figure of 250,000 dead and missing in its calculations. It estimated the quake caused at least $8 billion in damage, but said the number was likely to be higher, as much as $13.9 billion.
A worldwide pledging conference to raise funds for Haiti is expected to be held in late March or early April. Nations are expected to agree to a decade's commitment of assistance.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has made Haiti a priority, putting her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, in charge of coordinating aid to the country. But the administration will be seeking Haiti funds at a time when Congress is deeply concerned about the budget.
"These numbers are so large that there's no one single donor or multilateral organization that can possibly afford to take on the reconstruction and development that's required. So this really does require an unprecedented degree of cooperation," Powell said.