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Haiti’s long, terrible history of earthquakes and disaster

The view of a collapsed building following an earthquake, in Les Cayes, Haiti, in a still image taken from a video obtained by Reuters on Aug. 14. (Reuters TV/Reuters)

The 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti Saturday morning is just the latest in a long line of spectacularly tragic disasters — natural and man-made — that have devastated this Caribbean nation since its creation.

Poverty. Hurricanes. Epidemic outbreaks. Coups. Corruption. Assassination. Gang violence. Political paralysis.

Even before Saturday’s earthquake, Haiti was already reeling from a series of crises following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last month. Many parts of the country are currently struggling with gangs and hunger, even as its hospitals are overwhelmed by the pandemic.

“This country just never finds a break!” bemoaned Haitian entrepreneur Marc Alain Boucicault on Twitter. “Each year of mismanagement did not hurt but the cumulative effects made us vulnerable to everything! Its going to take years to fix things and we have not even started!”

Haiti is still recovering from the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in 2010 that destroyed wide swaths of the capital Port-au-Prince — perhaps the country’s worst disaster to date. Estimates of the 2010 death toll have ranged from 100,000 to more than 300,000. The 2010 event flattened buildings and left hundreds of thousands homeless in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

In the wake of the 2010 disaster, some hoped an infusion of foreign aid and the chance to rebuild Haiti would give the country a fresh start. But in the earthquake’s aftermath, Haiti’s crises only deepened and, in many ways, the country ended up worse off than ever.

While it remains unclear how deep the death and destruction of Saturday’s earthquake will be, the calamitous years that followed the 2010 disaster carry ominous warnings for the possible future of Haiti’s following its latest earthquake.

Disastrous response

Hopes were high following the 2010 earthquake. An estimated $13.3 billion in promised donations and humanitarian aid was raised. Foreign governments and international aid groups rushed in to help. Many talked of fixing the country’s long-standing infrastructure woes.

But more death followed, driven by a cholera outbreak. The infection, which killed at least 9,000, was likely brought in by infected United Nations peacekeepers — the very people who were supposed to help stabilize the country. It took years for the United Nations to admit it played a role, and even then it refused to accept legal and financial responsibility, citing treaties and diplomatic immunity.

As for the vast sums raised to help the country, some was lost to corruption and embezzlement. Several of Haiti’s top leaders were suspected of misusing money. A U.S.-backed international commission spearheaded in part by former president Bill Clinton was supposed to guide much of the reconstruction — coordinating efforts by foreign governments, aid groups and businesses. But its mandate expired after 18 months. And many Haitians complained that Clinton and the commission overpromised and underperformed.

A 2012 report by humanitarian group Oxfam found reconstruction two years afterward proceeding at a “snail’s pace” with half a million Haitians homeless and still living under tarps and tents.

In a 2020 Miami Herald interview, Clinton lamented the challenges and failure by him and others to dramatically help the nation.

“It was a big cumbersome process, but it was totally transparent and we kept up with who funded what, who got the money, and did an after-action audit on all of them,” Clinton said.

Part of the problem was an inability to keep donors accountable to give what they promised, according to the Miami Herald’s report. One account for instance found that the World Bank, for example, ultimately collected just $411.40 million from donors, a quarter of its original target of $1.5 billion to $2 billion.

Still turmoil, years later

Visiting the country in 2012, Washington Post correspondent William Booth found small signs of progress but also turmoil.

“Advances are everywhere, even if they are sometimes hard to see: The neighborhood lit by yellow candles a year ago is now strung with electric lights; the road once blocked by earthquake rubble is now snarled with morning traffic,” he wrote.

“But 500,000 people remain under tarps. About 20,000 still live in a squalid camp in downtown Port-au-Prince, their once-crisp tents, stamped USAID, now soiled gray and sagging in the heat in front of the collapsed National Palace.”

Things were not any better in 2015, Haitian human rights activist Nixon Boumba wrote in an account for The Post. “Poverty has worsened all around the capital,” the activist noted, “more beggars on the streets, an increase in teen pregnancy, and more people turning to sex work. … In truth, a great deal of the 'redevelopment’ has gone to help the rich and powerful, not the impoverished and displaced people who need it the most.”

More recently, the country has struggled amid the pandemic and political chaos. While the official number of cases and deaths have not been as high as other countries, some hospitals report being overwhelmed. And it has been difficult to assess the pandemic’s true extent, experts say, because testing is infrequent and other resources lacking.

Haiti was one of the last countries in the world to be able to offer coronavirus vaccines — receiving its first shipment last month shortly after the president’s assassination sent the country into paralyzing turmoil. It remains to be seen how effective that vaccination campaign will be, as it gets started, given the high level of distrust in many parts toward the government.

On Saturday — as has often happened in Haiti’s history — the fresh crisis of the earthquake ran headlong into the problems that came before. Aid groups’ efforts to get to the affected region were hampered by broken infrastructure and worries about violence. The country’s leaders — newly in place following the assassination — scrambled to respond.

“The needs are enormous,” Ariel Henry, the new prime minister, said as he declared a national state of emergency.

Meanwhile, another disaster looms: Tropical Storm Grace appears likely to hit Haiti early next week.