Why is Haiti so prone to natural disasters?

·5-min read
A drone photograph of the damage caused by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Los Cayos, Haiti, 14 August 2021 (EPA)
A drone photograph of the damage caused by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Los Cayos, Haiti, 14 August 2021 (EPA)

Jean Ronald Jocelyn’s godmother was visiting his two-storey home when a 7.2 -magnitude earthquake struck early Saturday morning in Les Cayes, Haiti.

He ran outside amid the tremors and neighbours screaming – then quickly returned to grab his elderly guest, fearful that the house would collapse.

“She’s old and she’s slow; she didn’t understand what was going on,” Mr Jocelyn told The Independent, from a charity compound where his employer, Hope for Haiti, has several buildings. The ground is cracked and the yard flooded after the quake.

If his own home had fallen in upon itself, he added, he and his godmother “would both die”.

Mr Jocelyn, who grew up in Les Cayes, is Hope for Haiti’s Education Program Director – but in his 39 years living on the island, he’s seen an increase in natural disasters, and fear.

“Living in Haiti, it happens very often; we feel some shakes,” he said. “This is frequent in Haiti. But I can tell you, when I was a kid, when I was younger, I did not used to experience earthquakes so often.”

His fellow Haitians, he said, “are afraid – and they think that, at any time, they can lose their life – and they don’t have the means to prepare for this”.

That’s the complicated thing about Haiti. It’s located on a devastating interaction of fault plates and in the hurricane belt. It’s also the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere with next to no infrastructure.

The country sits on the island of Hispaniola along with the Dominican Republic – which doesn’t make headlines as often for natural disasters but is just as vulnerable, experts say. To some extent, the DR is a ticking time bomb given the island’s location.

Earthquakes and fault lines are deeper within the Earth and less predictable when it comes to the impact of the climate crisis or weather, making preparations and evacuations nearly impossible.

“The issue with Hispaniola, the island, is that it’s right in a tangled knot of plate boundaries,” said Rich Briggs, a research geologist at the Geologic Hazards Science Center. “So it’s getting pushed together and shoved sideways at the same time. It has very complicated fault systems, and it also has very frequent earthquakes.”

He continued: “The number one predictor for the size and the frequency of earthquakes you’re going to get [is] where you are on the Earth’s surface – and if you’re near a plate boundary, just like Hispaniola. You’re guaranteed to get rather frequent and rather larger earthquakes.”

That’s not great news for Haiti’s island companion, the Dominican Republic.

“There’s actually a big fault analogous to the one that broke on Saturday, in the DR,” Briggs told The Independent. “It’s up in the north ... and it’s very, very similar to the one that just broke.”

He added that it has “just sat quietly recently; it’s the same island. It’s getting squeezed in the same vice, and it has very similar fault systems.”

Fault lines and earthquakes, however, are far from the only things Haiti has to worry about.

Haiti and the DR, according to Dennis Feltgen - a spokesman for the Florida-based National Hurricane Center - are “sitting in a pretty low latitude – 18 to 20 degrees north.”

“That’s right in the hurricane belt so they’re very vulnerable to it. They’re certainly no strangers to it,” he told The Independent.

A recent Oxfam report found that, according to Haitian government data, mean temperatures rose by more than 1 degree Celsius between 1973 and 2003 in the country.

“Extreme and variable weather conditions alternate between drought in the dry season... and intense storms and hurricanes in the wet season,” the report reads.

“Haiti lies in the primary pathway of tropical storms that originate in the Atlantic Ocean and strike Caribbean islands every hurricane season.”

The report goes on to note that there is a strong link to the climate crisis of what local people describe as “radical changes” in seasonal rainfall, and the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms. The extreme events have led to flooding and erosion—the impacts of which are magnified by severe environmental degradation.

All of that is exacerbated by an almost complete lack of infrastructure in Haiti.

“Today, hurricanes are well forecasted – but the problem is Haiti has so many issues: infrastructure, political ... poverty, you name it. So when you throw a hurricane on top if it...” Mr Feltgen told The Independent, trailing off.

Those obstacles are hard to discount. When the devastating 2010 earthquake hit Haiti, building collapses wiped out a large number of government agencies. The country effectively crumbled. And there are also historical reasons for that which must not be forgotten, experts say.

“This is a key part here: organized abandonment of Haitian society,” says Hossein Ayazi, who teaches at Williams College in Massachusetts and is a project policy analyst at UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute.

“Two-thirds of its workforce, working in agriculture, over a quarter of its GDP in agriculture ... that of course leaves them more susceptible to natural disasters.”

He pointed out that, during colonization, Haiti was one of the most profitable, agricultural Caribbean islands – but following its independence it suffered “from major trade deficits” and “this is what we refer to when we talk about dependency, when we talk about ongoing exploitation”.

“We see that in crumbling water and sanitation infrastructure – nonexistent water and sanitation infrastructure,” he told The Independent.

That lack of infrastructure – and residual effects from colonization – have been witnessed firsthand by Mr Jocelyn of Hope for Haiti.

“Haitians cut down almost all the trees that they have,” he told The Independent. “Haiti used to be a green country with many trees everywhere on the mountains; nowadays, we have bare mountains because we cut down the trees [for] charcoal.

“We don’t really replant the trees; we have devastated the environment. That’s why we are so vulnerable for hurricanes, landslides, erosion. What makes things worse is that it looks like the people, they’re not really aware of the damage they’re doing to modern nature in Haiti – because we don’t have as many trees as we had in the past. So we have almost a bare country.”

To combat that, he said, his organization is teaching children about the importance of replenishing those reserves with gardens and reforestation projects.

He added: “But we can’t do it by ourselves.”

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