US officials in Haiti warned that the Haitian government would be unable to handle a major earthquake, five years before a devastating tremor destroyed large swaths of the capital and surrounding towns, killing tens of thousands of people, according to a secret US cable made available by the media organization WikiLeaks.
"The last thing Haiti needs now is an earthquake," said a May 25, 2005, cable, written two weeks after a 4.3 magnitude tremor shook Port-au-Prince. No injuries were reported, and damage was minor. But the cable warned that "a more severe earthquake would be catastrophic, as the government of Haiti is unprepared to handle a natural disaster of any magnitude," adding that such an event would compound problems of political instability, poverty and environmental degradation.
The earthquake warning was in a trove of 1,918 cables that WikiLeaks made available to Haïti Liberté, which is collaborating with The Nation on a series of reports on US and UN policy toward the country.
The cable concluded that a team from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance "will come to Port-au-Prince in June  to help the embassy coordinate its disaster preparations, and to try to jump-start [Government of Haiti] and donor coordination and planning."
Yet the January 12, 2010, earthquake appeared to catch unprepared the Haitian government, international NGOs and a 9,000-strong UN military force that had occupied Haiti since the 2004 overthrow of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Relief and reconstruction efforts were—and continue to be—slow and chaotic, marred by a lack of coordination and open competition between various governments and international agencies.
"I do not understand it," exclaimed ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer the week after the earthquake, questioning the sluggish US response. "Six days and they are only ninety minutes away from Miami." "With every day that passes in the mud and rubble of Haiti, the failures of the relief effort are heartbreaking," read a New York Times editorial two months later.
Today, seventeen months after the quake, a raging cholera epidemic has claimed more than 5,330 lives, a figure that is expected to climb. A USAID-commissioned report released in May, titled “Building Assessments and Rubble Removal in Quake-Affected Neighborhoods in Haiti,” estimates that between 141,000 and 375,000 people remain without homes. Meanwhile, only about 37 percent of the $4.6 billion in support pledges has been disbursed, an alarming figure, given how much Haiti relies on the international community. Some 65 percent of the Haitian government budget and most, if not all, of its infrastructure spending comes from international sources. Almost half the population receives at least some health services financed by the US government, according to the US Embassy.
Haiti lies between two major fault lines that traverse the country, one under the capital and one beneath the second-largest city, Cap Haïtien, in the north. Seismologists consider both "quite dangerous," according to the cable, which warns, "The northern fault, in particular, has not released significant energy in over 800 years."
"According to experts, approximately 4 to 8 meters of left lateral slippage has already accumulated and should it be released, could register 8.0 or higher on the Richter scale, with no forewarning," the cable warns. "The soil conditions in Haiti are such that an earthquake anywhere in the country could cause severe liquefaction, whereby soil is turned to a quicksand type liquid, which is a considerable threat to infrastructure such as buildings, dams, bridges and highways."