IF THERE is one country in the
Americas that cannot afford to suffer a natural disaster, it is dirt-poor and
politically fragile Haiti. In 2008 four tropical storms killed 800 people, left
1m of the 9m population homeless and wiped out 15% of the economy. But the
earthquake that devastated the country, including Haiti’s capital,
Port-au-Prince, just before 5.00pm on January 12th was a yet crueller blow.
Many died — how many nobody will
know until Haiti’s people and the rescue workers who began arriving the next day
have completed the grim task of picking through the choking mounds of rubble and
concrete. But by the morning of January 14th they were talking of tens, if not
hundreds, of thousands of lives lost as schools, hospitals, houses, offices,
shops and the cathedral and the headquarters of the United Nations mission
collapsed in those 45 murderous seconds. The president, René Préval, as stunned
and dazed as the people seeking refuge in the streets, said simply, “It is a
No one yet knows how widely the
earthquake’s devastation has spread. There has been almost no news from the
towns outside the capital, nor from the remoter areas that may have suffered
landslides. But if the terrible scenes in Port-au-Prince are any guide, the
suffering has been on a sickening scale.
Human limbs protruded from
destroyed buildings, while muffled cries from victims trapped within filled the
thick air. The screams and wails of the injured and mourning mixed with prayers
and hymns from dazed, disbelieving survivors caked in dust and blood.
The physical destruction was
almost as shocking. Entire hillsides that had been packed with slums had been
swept bare. No landmarks were spared. The magnificent white rotunda of the
presidential palace caved in, as did part of the parliament building, the roof
and sides of the national cathedral, the offices of several international aid
agencies and the Hotel Montana.
The quake has degraded an
already feeble health service by destroying many hospitals and clinics,
including all three aid centres run by Médecins Sans Frontières, an NGO. The
lack of medicine and facilities and the scale of the injuries mean that many
people will perish from a lack of timely medical care.
Haiti will have to start all
over again, from even weaker beginnings. Over the coming years it will need a
lot of help.