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Experts Parse Successes and Failures in Haitian Earthquake Response


Matthew Cochrane explains that it will take years to clear the rubble from Port-au-Prince.
Photo by Patrick Verel

It will take at least a generation for Haiti to recover from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that flattened the country in January 2010. Such a recovery isn’t guaranteed, however, since the island nation is still very vulnerable to hurricanes and earthquakes.

This was the sobering news delivered on Feb. 23 at the Lincoln Center campus. “Haiti: One Year Later,” a panel presented by the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs, featured unvarnished assessments of the steep challenges that aid groups face in rebuilding the country.

Speakers included Gerald Martone, director of emergency response at the International Rescue Committee; Anne Edgerton, policy, advocacy and media lead for Oxfam International in Haiti; Russell Porter, coordinator of the USAID Haiti Task Team; Robin Contino, deputy coordinator for Catholic Relief Services; and Matthew Cochrane, communications coordinator for Haiti at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Martone called the situation in and around the capital city of Port-au-Prince, where an estimated 222,000 people died, a perfect laboratory for the disaster of the future.

“This is a biopsy of the megatrends we’re going to face: urbanization, high population density in an urban area, the effects of climate change, global economic deceleration, water scarcity, overpopulation, food scarcity, energy scarcity—it is all there in Haiti,” he said.

With that in mind, Martone suggested that aid groups change their perspective from one that assesses the needs of communities affected by disasters to one that assesses capacities they bring to the recovery effort.

“We really seem to forget that there’s no society in the world that doesn’t have some form of indigenous altruism. People come together quickly after disasters and actually rally and do take care of themselves,” he said. “Most of the rescue work in disasters is done by the communities themselves.”

Edgerton contrasted Haiti’s situation to recent disasters such as the Asian tsunami in 2004 and the 6.8-magnitude earthquake in Kobe, Japan in 1995. Even in a well-functioning country like Japan, it took a year to formulate a recovery plan for Kobe and another seven years to complete it.

In Haiti, she noted that the recent outbreak of water-borne cholera was particularly demoralizing for Oxfam, since clean water is an integral part of its mission.

“If you look at cholera that broke out in the tenth month after the earthquake and then the political violence and the lack of resolution during the 2010 elections, it’s almost a case study that no one would believe,” she said.

Cochran pointed out that understanding the problem of rubble removal requires great imagination for anyone who’s never been to Port-au-Prince. The United Nations estimates that 10 million cubic meters of rubble must be cleared from the city and the surrounding areas. Even if it were accessible by digging equipment, which it is not, the average truck can only carry nine cubic meters of rubble.

“It would take Haiti’s estimated 300 trucks—working seven days a week—more than five years to ship the rubble to the one dump site that exists,” he said. “There are also no laws that provide clarity on who owns the rubble. Authorities can’t decide whether the rubble belongs to the state, the owner or to the person who rents it out. So the rubble that can’t be moved just sits there.”

Despite the gloomy forecast, panelists cited some bright spots. Contino, for instance, touted CRS’s “Rubble to Reconstruction” project, which provides tools for Haitians to pulverize small pieces of rubble in otherwise inaccessible areas of Port-au-Prince.

“We’ve allowed people to stimulate their own livelihoods, because with the rubble they crush, they’re able to sell that. We’re one of the agencies that buys that concrete to make foundations. So these individuals are able to earn and use that rubble to rebuild their homes,” she said.


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