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Haiti - its worst ever disaster
A Little Island in the Caribbean
Right now it is world wide news because Haiti has just suffered what has been called its worst ever disaster, A massive earthquake shook the city of Port a Prince in the afternoon of Tuesday, 12th January, 2010. It was 4.53pm local time and suddenly there was no electricity, no communication and no way of helping many of the victims for several hours until daylight returned the following morning. But was it this nation's worst disaster?
Rather than repeat news reports and what others are saying it was more interesting for me to look to the past to understand why this country is the poorest in the western world and why people there have suffered extreme hardship for centuries.
What is a Fault Line?
The earthquake happened because Haiti sits on a fault line. Being a small island the shaking was extensive as buildings were poorly constructed and easily toppled. So what does this mean?
Many don't reaiise that the earth is a living, breathing and endlessly moving organ where all parts are subject to the benefit of the whole. It comprises a hard outer casing enclosing a mass of molten liquid within its core. Geologists know it is still cooling down from the original state of burning matter that became planet earth. As it cools further the crust is under extreme pressure and it buckles and one part pushed against another until something gives, Where these eruptions occur is called a fault line and there are numerous ones of these slip zones pinpointed around the globe.
They are easy to identify because they are usually fringed by mountains or travel under the sea where it is harder to see them. Where they occur on land there is usually a river associated and often a large canyon, as in the Rift Valley in South Africa.
The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was considered to be the granddaddy of them all and it is still talked about. Every one that has occurred since is compared to it for its intensity and death toll. The city is built on the San Andreas Fault and shocks are often felt as the land moves underneath it. To make matters worse a lot of the city was built on filled in swamps which caused 'liquefaction' to occur, making the end result even worse when this quake hit. That is where the filled land turns to a liquidized state
Fault Lines around Haiti
Cities and Fault Lines
Its human error
Of course people are going to build their homes where they have a bay for shelter, a port for trade, an ocean to fish and swim in and, of course, the views. The gorgeous picturesque views of the ocean in its varying moods is an attraction that people find irresistible. First one or two shacks or houses appear and before long there is a mob of people with building underway at an ever increasing pace.
As the years turn into centuries the small villages become towns and then cities and without proper planning in place things go terribly wrong. Buildings are 'Jerry built' as we say in Australia which means they are put up by amateurs who may have no experience and probably in a poor country will use the cheapest materials available. As the population grows they acquire a government who imposes taxes and forces communal contributions. This leaves things wide open for corruption.
Of course before Europeans indigenous tribes would occupy these places but they used 'humpies' or grass dwellings that caused no problem if and when an earthquake arrived. But since Roman times the west has built in cement and brick and therein lies the problem.
Could this be Your Home? - If you knew it was there then . . .
Would you live on a fault line?
A Look at Haitian History
And why the country it is so poor.
The first inhabitants, as far as we know, were there when Columbus arrived. It is recorded that 4-500,000 Taino people called the island home and the explorer named it Hispaniola, which most of the world has heard about in their history lessons. He built a fort and sent his men out looking for gold, the main concern of Spaniards when they came to new countries. There are some horror stories of the treatment of these people by the invaders prior to the return of Columbus along with a substantial number of settlers.
By the time the Spanish settlers arrived in force the Inquisition was in full swing back home and people were burned alive for not being Catholic or converting to it when ordered to. The natives of Haiti were ignorant of Christianity and, as in other parts of America, they were punished as the children of the devil. There are reports that Haitians had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death at the hands of gold thieves who, under the orders of Columbus, ordered a quantity of gold to be delivered to them every three months or they would suffer that same fate.
The fear under which these poor people lived is indicative of Spanish invasion and settlement in all parts of the Americas, so there is no reason not to believe it. The cutting off of hands is documented in artwork and records from that time in other places and still happens today in parts of Africa where the new craze for wealth involves diamonds and gold and, of course, African slaves.
It became a very rich colony under France which imported sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, the dye indigo and other exotic products. These things were then sold to the rest of Europe and great fortunes were made. But it was also used for slavery and following a slave revolt, led by Toussaint Louverture (pictured) and defeat of the French army they considered they were free. But a big surprise awaited them. "After its independence, Haiti was forced by military threats to pay compensation to France of 150 million francs (the equivalent of $25 billion today) - this debt plagued the economy of Haiti for over 80 years which it did not finally finish paying until 1922." source Artman, Article 5819 (no longer available). It was, in fact, the first black republic, but what did that mean for the people?
The citizens of Haiti were naïve and more than 95% of them were illiterate so they could be easily swayed by any dictator or criminal element that came along - and one did.
From Poor to Poverty Stricken in a few Short Years
Arise Papa Doc
A doctor of medicine Francoise Duvalier called himself Papa Doc because that's how the people named him. But he was a tyrant in disguise and quickly gained control in 1957 when elections were rigged by the Haitian army to make him President. "He reformed the loosely controlled gang of thugs he'd utilised to annoy his opponents in the 1957 election into a tightly controlled secret police, nicknamed the Tontons Macoute after a mythical Haitian boogeyman that grabs people and makes them the disappear forever. Papa Doc's opposition was fractured and jockeying for their own share of government kickbacks and fraud. Papa Doc wasted no time in sending his enemies to the ghastly Fort Dimanche to be tortured to death."
Those of us who were alive and can remember his regime at that time knew the reports and the devastation he caused. Much like Pinochet in Chile and other dictators of out time. From the same source "When Papa Doc finally died in 1971, he had managed to bring an already poor nation into unimaginable poverty and misery, as Haiti became the poorest nation in the Americas as a direct result of his wild kleptomania. His twin legacies, the 15 year rule of his son (deposed in 1986), and the creation of millions of political and economic refugees."
But Haiti's woes did not end with his death or of the removal of his son. "After decades of corrupt and often brutal rule, and imperialist meddling, around 75% of the population lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% - four and a half million people - live on less than $1 per day. Nearly half of its 8 million people are illiterate, half its children are malnourished, and one in 10 children works as a domestic servant in conditions that human rights groups liken to slavery. Over 70% of the population is unemployed. Sixty percent of the housing in Port-au-Prince was sub-standard."
What would you Like the World to do for you? - If your city was like Haiti today
Would you expect an outpouring of aid and all the help available to come to your assistance
Now Its Time to Give Something Back
How long should they suffer?
The poorly constructed buildings, the shanty towns and cheap huts and the inconvenience of not having services, like fresh running water, makes for a sorry deposition upon those who live in luxury and visit this country on holidays. It is even more damning for the richest nation on earth to have this dreadful misery on its doorsteps. Do these people not matter in the scheme of things? This photo shows life before the earthquake and the way the water was carried and the poorly constructed building in the background.
Haitians have been described as devil worshipers and a host of other forms of damnation and yet they are flesh and blood, they are victims of circumstance and certainly the inheritors of corruption and exploitation. They come from backgrounds where they have never had a chance to learn or be educated in the ways of the west. They don't know about good manners and queuing up for food when they are starving. Now they need help and its up to the world to give it and do it quickly.
No one knows what will happen as the years pass by but we should be trying to make a difference. Rebuild the city but not as unprotected as before, Teach them better principals and how to care for themselves, how to build and maintain infrastructure and not be at the mercy of some other dictatorial crook who might come their way.
It is probably not their wish to be earning heaps of money as most earn less than $2 a day. But it must be their desire to have a home of a decent standard of construction to live in and rear their children. They don't ask for much and they don't probably want for luxury but they do want for help - our help. As I watch survivors being lifted from beneath layers of cement and often turning to the cameras with smiles on their faces my heart jumps. Some of them die while waiting for medical care. Some die beneath the rubble and we can only imagine the pain.
Great lumps of concrete have, in many instances, broken legs, arms, ribs, hips, pelvic bones and crushed their heads. Many are trapped by it with limbs crushed beneath As they lie underneath unseen they pass hour after agonizing hour waiting for some sign of rescue. Some will never be taken out alive and eventually they slip into a peaceful end while their bodies rot and add to the foul aroma permeating the atmosphere. We can only imagine and hope that such a fate will never befall one of us or our children. But what if it does?
Still images from Dreamstime - click here
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© 2010 norma-holt