Amanda Ripley

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“Hell on Top of Hell” in Haiti

14th Jan 2010 posted in Disaster Behavior

What happens if you take a horrifically poor place and shake it to pieces? I heard a survivor describe the scene in Haiti as “hell on top of hell” on CNN yesterday. We are learning all over again that disasters aren’t “natural” or inevitable. Money matters more than anything else. Which is to say, where and how we live matters more than Mother Nature.

Remember the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California? In magnitude and depth, that quake was similar to the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. The Northridge quake killed 63 people, and the Pakistan one killed about 100,000. The wolf huffs and puffs on every continent in every year, but he always blows down the shanty towns.

This AP story does a good job explaining why Haiti is always getting hammered by one disaster or another. It’s not just about location:

Vulnerability to natural disasters is almost a direct function of poverty, said Debarati Guha Sapir, director of the World Health Organization’s Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

“Impacts are not natural nor is there a divine hand or ill fate,” Sapir said. “People will also die now of lack of follow-up medical care. In other words, those who survived the quake may not survive for long due to the lack of adequate medical care.”

University of South Carolina’s Susan Cutter, who maps out social vulnerability to disaster by county in the United States, said Haiti’s poverty makes smaller disasters there worse.

“It’s because they’re so vulnerable, any event tips the balance,” said Cutter, director of the school’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute. “They don’t have the kind of resiliency that other nations have. It doesn’t take much to tip the balance.”

Last month, a study by the Organization of American States concluded that many of the buildings in Haiti were so shabbily constructed that they were unlikely to survive any disaster, CNN reports.

“You could tell very easily that these buildings were not going to survive even a [magnitude] 2 earthquake,” said Cletus Springer, director of the Department of Sustainable Development at OAS in Washington.

Structures were built on slopes without proper foundations or containment structures, using improper building practices, insufficient steel and insufficient attention to development control, the urban planner said.

It doesn’t have to be this way:

After Hurricane Ivan flattened much of Grenada in September 2004, the OAS carried out a similar research effort, then helped the island nation strengthen its building practices, Springer said.

Within three years, artisans and engineers had been trained to strengthen that island’s building-control systems and procedures, he said. Even financing was addressed. “We worked with the banks to be sure we could properly vet applications for mortgages.”

I suppose that should make us feel better about what could be, once the bodies are buried in Haiti. But for now, it can only feel like a massive tragedy.