As if tiny Haiti didn’t have it bad enough, now it has been hit by an earthquake of magnitude 7.0. Buildings in Haiti are flimsy even without a temblor, and many have fallen, with extremely high casualties very likely. Communication is so poor we don’t know what the death toll might be, but it looks very bad.
Haiti has had a bad time of it almost since its beginning. Violence, corruption, poverty, thy name is Haiti, and it’s been that way for centuries.
Haiti is a very beautiful country, as I know from personal experience. I was there for a single day on a trip with my parents at the age of fourteen, during the rule of corrupt dictator Papa Doc Duvalier. I well remember the island’s exotic, lush vegetation; its attractive people, the graceful women going to market with huge loads on their heads; the green mountain that constituted its landscape; and the grinding poverty that was everywhere visible.
We don’t ordinarily think of the Caribbean as a huge center for earthquake activity, but they occur there with some frequency and severity. Jamaica, for example, was once the home of a large and flourishing city of 6,000 known as Port Royal, destroyed by an earthquake and subsequent landslide and tsunami in 1692, during which the bulk of the city virtually slid into the sea.
This 2005 article describes the considerable risk of earthquake in the Caribbean:
With nearly twenty million people now living in this tourist region and a major earthquake occurring on average every 50 years, scientists say it is not a question of if it will happen but when…In a new study published December 24, 2004 in the Journal of Geophysical Research from the American Geophysical Union, geologists…report a heightened earthquake risk of the Septentrional fault zone, which cuts through the highly populated region of the Cibao valley in the Dominican Republic…In addition, they caution, the geologically active offshore Puerto Rico and Hispaniola trenches are capable of producing earthquakes of magnitude 7.5 and higher…The Hispaniola Trench parallels the north coast of the Dominican Republic and Haiti…The island of Hispaniola faces a double risk: an earthquake from the Septentrional fault on the island itself as the plates move past each other, and an earthquake deep in the earth in the subduction zone on which the island sits.
But what can a poverty-stricken, disorganized country like Haiti do about such warnings? Nothing. It already had more than enough to worry about, and precious little money and organizational ability with which to do it. This is a terrible blow to a people who have already suffered more than most. If you’re the praying sort, now might be a good time to do so.
Humanitarian aid is already streaming in, and there will be more. But Haiti has always been a broken country, even before the earthquake. And once countries are so broken, can all the king’s horses and all the king’s men ever put them together again?
[ADDENDUM: Richard Fernandez reflects.]