The Jan. 12 Port-au-Prince earthquake is almost unique in modern history. It is about the worst natural extreme to affect some of the worst-off people on earth. What does disaster recovery mean when this happens?
Poor countries suffer more from natural extremes like hurricanes, droughts and floods than do rich countries. Everything about richer countries makes surviving such extremes an easier task. They usually have vast resources and good institutions of government; the sad catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans notwithstanding, they can respond quickly to save lives and help rebuild them after the disaster. Insurance is common, and relatively few lives are lost. The cost of damage can seem large in absolute numbers, but in proportion to the size of the economy are quite small, and can be coped with easily. Look at the Dow stock index in September 2005, just after Katrina; the U.S. economy hardly noticed. Nor did the Chinese economy much notice the Sichuan Earthquake of 2008, even though some 70,000 people died. Both countries are large enough geographically to isolate the physical effects of disasters, and have large enough economies that those losses can be isolated as well, buffered by the total power of the country. Locally, these disasters are immensely harmful; nationally they are not.
Haiti is the inverse. Its geography and economy are both too small to buffer the losses it has experienced. Haiti had no well-functioning government institutions for emergency services before the disaster, so response afterward was essentially impossible. If there were building codes, they were not enforced. That is not only because this would require a system of inspection by people who would not accept bribes, but because building structures that are strong cost more than building structures that may look strong but are actually very weak. How can you build safely if you can barely afford to build at all?
Much of the rubble seen in the terrible videos we are now appallingly used to is composed of chunks of cement – and just cement. This is the style so typical of poorer parts of the world. Just cement is not enough; columns and walls should be built with high quality cement, with the right amount of sand, and sewn through with steel reinforcing bars – rebar. That’s what gives them strength. Next time you look at a video or a still image of damaged buildings in Haiti, look for rebar. I haven’t seen any yet. The reason it is costly and hence left out, or too few used. The cement is not high quality because good cement is also costly; too much sand is used, because it is cheap. The buildings of Port-au-Prince were sand castles waiting to kill their inhabitants.
There is no stock market in Port-au-Prince, but if there were, it would have tanked on the 13th. The state of the Haitian economy is probably not measurable at the moment. Weak as it was before the quake, it is now much weaker. In rich or growing economies, a devastated region picks itself up by essentially reattaching to the larger economy of the country. Haiti cannot do that.
The aid that comes to Haiti from the international community must rebuild infrastructure: the houses, stores, hospitals and schools. But it must also rebuild the economy—an economy that has been devastated over decades prior to the quake itself, by the slow but equally dreadful disaster of bad government, bad policy and associated environmental degradation that has left the country in ruins. Haiti has the doubly difficult task of rising out of the ashes of physical and economic rubble. You would never want to do it this way, but the money that will come to help Haiti recover has to be deployed as a type of economic stimulus package. The economy will need to be rebuilt with rebar, too.
This is all new. The world community has never faced a challenge like this before. Succeeding will be a test of endurance and courage for all of us.
John Mutter is a geophysicist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, professor at Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and founder of the Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List. A version of this piece appeared previously in OECD Insights.