Haiti’s Unnatural Disaster

Haiti’s Unnatural Disaster

Haiti has been beaten down by storms and abandoned by its neighbors, and its suffering will only increase unless the world community responds.


Paul Farmer wrote the article below just after four hurricanes hit Haiti within a 30-day span in 2008. His analysis of the island’s vulnerability to natural disasters sheds light on challenges facing Haiti in the wake of earthquake that hit the country on January 12, 2010.

Haiti has been lashed by four devastating storms in thirty days. Cellphones are dead in much of the country, and reports are coming in only slowly, but sober estimates suggest that more than a thousand have died–so far–and up to a million have been left homeless. Although Hurricane Ike’s full fury was unleashed on Cuba, the death toll in Haiti was more than ten times that of all of the neighboring islands combined.

Why is Haiti so vulnerable to such storms? Coastal cities like Gonaïves–where in 2004 Tropical Storm Jeanne killed twice as many as Hurricane Katrina did in New Orleans–are situated on a flood plain, making them vulnerable to flash floods and mudslides triggered by heavy rains in the deforested mountains. Haiti is almost completely deforested, and still its poor majority fell trees for fuel to cook whatever meager rations are on hand. Forest cover, already sparse, has been reduced by half in the past twenty years. In more than twenty-five years here, I’ve never seen significant flooding in the central highlands, but recently our co-workers in Hinche, the district capital of the Central Department, were wading through chest-deep water to rescue families whose frail homes were under water or swept away. Deforestation is to blame.

What can be done to lessen the impact of severe weather in Haiti? Several steps must be taken immediately to assuage the massive suffering. The first is direct relief: Hanna hit Gonaïves September 2. A full week later, after the New York Times and the Washington Post had measured the tragedy, portions of the city remained under several feet of filthy water and tens of thousands were still stranded on rooftops, hungry, thirsty and increasingly angry. Who can blame them? Much talk yields little action, and that action is poorly coordinated, tentative and underfunded.

Barely more than a week on the job, Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis came to central Haiti to inspect damage and discuss relief operations. Hers is surely the toughest job in the hemisphere. People here note that she’s “starting the job with two disasters: hurricanes and back-to-school.” Of millions of children scheduled to begin classes, few have shown up. Meetings ostensibly about disaster relief put the new prime minister before a litany of complaints about crops destroyed, livestock lost, food and water shortages, and the perennial question of every Haitian parent: how will we send our children to school? Across the country, parents (many homeless) fretted about how to pay school fees (or prove that they had). Hours after Pierre-Louis visited a shabby hospital in central Haiti and met with local officials about the flood of refugees expected from the coast, the bridge she had crossed was swept away in another Ike-induced flash flood. It was the sixth major bridge to fall–the last one connecting us to the coast. For days, flooded regions north and west of the capital were cut off from the rest of the country.

Pierre-Louis, an economist new to politics, knows that these disasters are not purely “natural.” She also knows that the rural poor cut down trees to make charcoal because they have no choice. Only alternative fuels and reforestation, linked with other public works, and thus jobs, can reverse Haiti’s deforestation. Jobs outside the agricultural sector are urgently needed if reforestation is to happen. This should make progressives slow to disparage new jobs in the tourist and apparel industries, dealt severe blows by the political unrest of the recent past.

That Haiti is a veritable graveyard of development projects has less to do with Haitian culture and more to do with the nation’s place in the world. The history that turned the world’s wealthiest slave colony into the hemisphere’s poorest country has been tough, in part because of a lack of respect for democracy both among Haiti’s small elite and in successive French and US governments. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the US simply refused to acknowledge Haiti’s existence. In the latter half, gunboats pre-empted diplomacy. And in 1915 US Marines began a twenty-year military occupation and formed the modern Haitian army (whose only target has been the Haitian people). After the fall of Duvalier in 1986, Washington continued to support unelected, mainly military, governments. Indeed, it was not until after 1990, when Haiti had its first democratic elections, that assistance to the government was cut back and finally cut off. The decay of the public sector–through aid cutoffs and neoliberal policies–is one of the chief reasons Haiti, unlike neighboring Cuba, is unable to respond to hurricanes with effective relief.

Haiti needs and deserves a modern Marshall Plan that rebuilds public institutions and creates jobs outside of the worn-down agricultural sector. Without one, it will have a hard time surviving the hurricane season. And next year will be worse.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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