What happened in Haiti this week is a catastrophe of staggering proportions — one that’s likely to shape U.S. policy profoundly in the Caribbean for years to come.
There literally is no "there" there in Haiti anymore. But it was hardly a functioning state even before the deadly earthquake added its devastating blow to tribulations man had created.
There was nothing remotely resembling a system of emergency relief or basic medical care. Propping up the country was an enormous charitable state-within-a-state, beginning with the better-known international agencies, extending to hundreds of religious charities, and filtering down to individual Americans of faith who literally flew in and built their own orphanages.
There was nothing regulating any of these efforts, except the extraordinary good will of those involved. They braved disease, violence, and rampant corruption to keep the citizens of this country alive. Now, sadly, many of them are victims, too.
I have worked as a journalist in Haiti since 1986, covering the country’s coups, assassinations, and U.S. occupations but also writing a great deal about its environment. In 2004, I wrote a 40-page section on Haiti’s environment for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel called The Eroding Nation.
And that environment is key to understanding what the international community and relief organizations face in rebuilding this country. Think of Port-au-Prince as a city of 3 million people built on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The city rises from sea level to peaks higher than 6,000 feet in a distance of just 20 miles. Overall, the country is more mountainous in parts than Switzerland.
Port-au-Prince has a larger share of its national population — one-third of the country’s 9 million population — living in its borders than any other major city in the Western Hemisphere. Most are squeezed into shantytowns and slums built on the sides of mountains with population densities that rival those of India or Bangladesh. The only way to reach these cities is by walking up narrow slopes in hikes that can last for hours.
And that’s where the casualties are. During the past 50 years, because of government corruption and often-misguided development policies too numerous to name here, millions of poor Haitians fled the countryside for the capital city. They first moved into the low-lying swamplands, forming some of the most dangerous, drug-infested slums in the world. Then they built on the sides of steep mountain slopes, creating communities that looked like shoeboxes heaped thousands of feet high.
They left fertile farmland from which Haiti used to export rice, coffee, and other crops because the country’s systems of canals and highways were poorly maintained. When international food prices went up and down, the country’s farmers had nothing to protect them from economic cycles.
At the same time, a booming trade in charcoal that the rich still use to dryclean clothes and cook with led many sharecroppers to cut down trees. The trees were never replaced. When it rains in Haiti, as it does intensely during the hurricane season, huge floods begin in the mountains and rush down these slopes, carrying the best topsoil out to sea. The result is dust-bowl conditions much like those of 1930s America.
And that’s ultimately what killed so many people this week. The country technically has a building code enforcement department, but it was a joke. Rich and poor could build any structure they pleased with the right bribes. That same corruption likely led to watered-down mortar and poor quality bricks that turned to powder when the earthquake hit.
Some of the country’s most prominent elites had huge homes built at the top of these ravines overlooking the poor. Many of them are gone now. The country’s premiere hotel, The Montana, where many U.N. officials lived as well as wined and dined, collapsed into a stack of pancakes.
A staggering task faces the U.S. military and other relief groups in Haiti. There is very little heavy machinery, and virtually no expertise operating these vehicles in an emergency environment. There was a fire department, but I saw firefighters arrive at a blaze in 2004 with no water in their trucks.
There are few highways. The roads stretching up the sides of Port-au-Prince are two lanes. Haiti does share the island of Hispaniola with a functioning nation, the Dominican Republic, but the roads to the country are very bad and roll over steep mountains.
Relief workers are faced with hundreds of collapsed structures containing tens of thousands of bodies that are rotting in the open air and seeping into the water table.
They will be dealing with a population that is largely illiterate, though extremely religious (Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and Vodou) and very hard-working. But that population has little interaction with a functioning government most have no record of their birth and now, sadly deaths.
There won’t be much time to rebuild the government, indeed, erect a new government, before impatience and anger take over. In another month, rains will begin that will create even more dangerous conditions.
Taking control of this situation quickly will be essential for the Obama administration and the international community. The enormity of this tragedy offers the possibility to rebuild — actually, to build — a functioning state.
But if control isn’t established soon, the United States will face another wave of Haitian boat people, and tensions will rise between what’s left of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which already has an estimated 1 million Haitian-born residents and their children with no citizenship there.
This was not only a natural disaster but also a man-made disaster that has been years in the making.
Newsmax.com Night Managing Editor Tim Collie covered Haiti and Latin America for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and other newspapers.
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