Wednesday, August 10

Discomfort in Haiti after the earthquake in a country in crisis: “We did not learn the lesson of 2010”

Winnie Hugot Gabriel was hosting her morning radio show when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake ripped through southern Haitiwhereupon the terrified listeners fled into the street.

“It was felt even here in Port-au-Prince. It was strong,” says the 32-year-old journalist from the Magik 9 station. After the shaking, Gabriel put down the microphone and ran into the street at full speed.

The Haitian capital, destroyed by a smaller-scale earthquake in January 2010, appears to have emerged virtually unscathed from the quake, the latest in a fatal series of natural disasters to hit the Caribbean country.

But the situation in the southern peninsula of Haiti, at the epicenter of the earthquake, is much more serious. Towns such as Jérémie and Les Cayes have been pulverized by the calamity that, according to authorities, has killed at least 1,297 people and injured more than 5,700.

“I am devastated. It is horrible. It is my nightmare and the nightmare of anyone who remembers 2010: that something like this happened again,” says American journalist Jonathan M. Katz, a survivor of that disaster and author of a book on the subsequent poor international response.

This Saturday, as rescue teams searched for survivors among the collapsed buildings and aid workers rushed to provide food, water and shelter to those who had had to leave their collapsed houses, many of the region’s hospitals were seriously overflowing with patients. wounded.

“Right now I’m walking around town to see if we can rescue more people and find more bodies,” says Claude Harry Milord, mayor of Jérémie, where at least 100 deaths have been confirmed.

Milord says that some of the injured were being airlifted to Port-au-Prince. Those still in Jérémie desperately need help. “The city needs medicine, tents and food because so many people have lost everything.”

Patients on the floor

On the other side of the peninsula, in Les Cayes, the situation appears to be even worse. “There are many injured. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Some treat patients on the ground; others just send people back to their homes,” says Akim Kikonda, humanitarian worker with the group Catholic Relief Services. He says the aftershocks of the earthquake have unsettled survivors who have been left homeless. “People are very scared.”

Roody Bouilly, a telecommunications worker based in Les Cayes, says schools, hotels and supermarkets have been reduced to rubble. “What happened is very painful,” says the 40-year-old. “The city is terrified. Many slept on the street last night, almost identical to what we saw in Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010.”

In recent months, a conflict between the police and armed criminal gangs has made the only road that connects the Haitian capital with the three most affected departments – Grand’Anse, Nippes and Sud – practically impassable, making it difficult to navigate. rescue tasks.

“It has been a war zone for a long time. Fuel cannot arrive. Supplies cannot arrive. Ambulances cannot arrive,” says Jean William Pape, a prominent Haitian doctor who, because of the conflict unleashed by criminal groups , uses helicopters and light planes to deliver supplies to hospitals in Jérémie and Les Cayes.

Milord, the mayor of Jérémie, fears that the arrival of Tropical Storm Grace – which is forecast to hit Haiti in the next few hours – will further complicate rescue efforts. “I really don’t know what can happen,” he says. He remembers seeing bodies lying in the streets of his city after the earthquake hit the country on Saturday around 8:30 in the morning.

According to Katz, the earthquake, which struck just a month after the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, has increased misery in the south-west of the country. The region continues to try to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

If the epicenter of the earthquake had been closer to the capital, where about a third of Haiti’s 11 million people live, the country could have faced a historic disaster, similar to that of 2010.

“But if you live in Les Cayes or Jérémie, that consolation is of little use. Many people have died and the death toll continues to climb. This in itself will be a very, very bad disaster,” says Katz, author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (“The Big Truck That Passed By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left a Disaster Behind”).

Unfulfilled promises

Gabriel, the radio host, says she is saddened to see that 11 years after the deadliest earthquake in the Western Hemisphere, her country remains unprepared for disasters like this.

“We didn’t learn the lesson of 2010. Realizing that is terrifying,” he says, criticizing the apparent lack of contingency plans and the failure to improve standards for building construction.

Gabriel is afraid of the months of uncertainty and difficulty that lie ahead. Following the assassination of the president, still unsolved, Haiti must grapple with a series of deep and interrelated crises. “We have this political crisis, COVID-19 is still there, there is an economic crisis and now we are facing this earthquake and its aftermath. It is really very, very difficult. It is like not having respite. Things do not improve, but the problems are getting worse. “.

Katz says the image of poorly built homes that have collapsed like “houses of cards” shows how the world has failed to deliver on what it had promised after the 2010 earthquake.

“The international community had promised that it would not only help rescue people from the rubble. It was a bigger promise: as Bill Clinton said, it would help rebuild a better Haiti.”

“It is enough to see what has happened in the 24 hours after the earthquake to see that this has never happened. Very little was rebuilt and what was done does not seem to be better.”

Translation of Julián Cnochaert