With all their woes, the last thing Haitians needed was the calamitous earthquake (the most severe in the region in over 200 years) that struck Port-au-Prince, surrounding areas, and other parts of the country on January 12 at about 5PM (2200 GMT), devastating the capital, possibly killing hundreds of thousands, injuring many more, and disrupting the lives of millions of people already overwhelmed by other crushing hardships.
An AP report said "journalists found the damage staggering even for a country long accustomed to tragedy and disaster." Many hundreds of thousands lost everything, including loved ones.
Tremors were felt across the country and throughout the region. Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, however, are in shambles. Rubble is strewed everywhere. Roads are impassable. One to Delmas collapsed down a mountain burying many homes underneath. The airport closed, then reopened so relief flights in began. Fires were burning across the city. The National Cathedral and Palace of Justice, Haiti's Supreme Court, collapsed. So did the Presidential Palace, UN headquarters, hotels, other municipal buildings, business structures, schools, hospitals, churches, everything in an event of biblical proportions.
People were wandering the streets dazed, searching for loved ones. Power is out so communication only by satellite phone is possible, and there's no TV or radio. In the wealthy Petionville neighborhood, a hospital, ministry building and private homes collapsed. So did other buildings across the capital and in rural communities like Leogane. Jacmel in the southeast also sustained major damage.
Poor Haitians in homes built on mountains suffered heavily as reports said they tumbled down, one on top of another likely killing everyone inside.
The US Geological Service (USGS) reported that the quake was felt throughout Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in Turks and Caicos Islands, southeastern Cuba, eastern Jamaica, in parts of Puerto Rico, The Bahamas, and as distant as Tampa, FL and Caracas, Venezuela. Its epicenter was about 10 miles off the Port-au-Prince coast, close to the surface at six miles underground. No tsunami is expected as initially feared.
Registering 7.0 (other reports said 7.3) plus severe aftershocks, (dozens so far with readings high as 5.9) it:
"occurred in the boundary region separating the Caribbean plate and the North American plate (dominated) by left-lateral slip motion and compression (close to the surface), and accommodates about 20 mm/y slip, with the Caribbean plate moving eastward with respect to the North American plate."
Head of earth hazards at the British Geological Survey, David Kerridge, said:
"there is a strong possibility of landslides, which may have caused many causalities in more remote parts of the island."
Earlier Warning Unheeded
Writing in Haiti's Le Matin on September 25, 2008, Phoenix Delacroix quoted geologist Patrick Charles of Havana's Geological Institute saying:
"conditions are ripe for major seismic activity in Port-au-Prince. The inhabitants of the Haitian capital need to prepare themselves for an event which will inevitably occur...." Citing a real danger, he added: "Thank God that science has provided instruments that help predict these type of events and show how we have arrived at these conclusions."
He explained that the dangerous Enriquillo Fault Zone extends across Port-au-Prince, starting in Petionville, traversing the Southern Peninsula to Tiburon. Noting earlier tremors in the area, he said a larger earthquake usually follows. Nonetheless, no precautions were taken, leaving Haitians vulnerable to what's now all too apparent.
It's reminiscent of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city on August 29, 2005. Warned in advance, the city was woefully unprepared even though it's shaped like a bowl, lies below sea level, and its Gulf coast location is hazardous.
What was called inevitable, finally happened leaving catastrophic destruction for the city's most vulnerable, the majority poor black population targeted for removal, needing only an excuse to do it. The storm wiped out public housing and erased communities, letting developers build upscale condos and other high-profit projects on choice city land. Perhaps a similar scheme is behind Haiti's current catastrophe with developers ready to take full advantage for long in the works plans, waiting for a chance to be implemented, in this case rebuilding the choicest parts of Port-au-Prince and surroundings and excluding poor Haitians from them.
Catastrophic Death Toll, Destruction, and Human Desperation
President Rene Preval told the Miami Herald that the toll was "unimaginable" and estimated thousands died. He said:
"Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. (The main Port-au-Prince ones either collapsed or were too structurally unsafe to be used.) There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them. All of the hospitals are packed with people. It is a catastrophe" as many thousands are believed buried beneath rubble. Haitian aid groups were trying to find their own dead and missing. Limbs protruded from under piles of disintegrated concrete, and muffled cries came from inside wrecked buildings.
The parking lot of Port-au-Prince's Hotel Villa Creole is now a triage center. Doctors Without Borders set up street clinics to treat the injured and said:
"The level of care we can now provide without (infrastructure) is very limited. The best we can offer (is) first-aid and stabilization. The reality of what we're seeing is severe traumas - head wounds, crushed limbs - severe problems that cannot be dealt with at the level of care we currently have available with no infrastructure really to support it."
The Red Cross estimates at least three million Haitians need emergency relief - everything, including food, water, makeshift shelter in tents and medical care. It also reported that it ran out of medicine and needs help to replace it.
Louise Ivers, clinical director of Partners in Health (providing essential healthcare to needy Haitians and the poor in other countries) said:
"Port-au-Prince is devastated, lots of deaths. SOS. SOS. Temporary field hospital (run) by us needs supplies, pain meds, bandages. Please help us."
Other reports described houses in rubble everywhere. A former Oxfam employee. Kristie van de Wetering, said:
"There is a blanket of dust (likely toxic creating another hazard) rising from the valley south of the capital. We can hear people calling for help from every corner. The aftershocks are ongoing and making people very nervous."
Raphaelle Chenet, Mercy and Sharing charity administrator said:
"I saw dead bodies, people are screaming, they are on the streets panicking, people are hurt. There are a lot of wounded, broken heads, broken arms....There is no electricity, electric poles are down all over the place."
She also heard explosions, believed to be from ruptured gas lines, and people familiar with what afflicts poor Haitians fear the worst. Their neighborhoods are densely crowded. They have large families and live in cardboard and tin shacks, likely leveled by the quake leaving them homeless.
Nations throughout the world offered aid, and some already arrived, Venezuela's perhaps first on a C-130 with a 50-strong advance humanitarian team on board. Immediately after the quake, Chavez ordered an aid team sent comprised of doctors, engineers, search and rescue specialists, and civil protection officers, as well as food, water, medical supplies, and rescue equipment. He also promised more would follow.
Other countries also reacted quickly, mostly a few Latin American ones, not those with more conservative governments promising only token aid. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega sent electricians to repair power lines. Cuba sent or already had on the ground about 350 doctors and medical supplies. Various EU nations made token pledges at a time massive amounts are needed, including large teams of skilled professionals for every imaginable need.
In a prepared statement, President Obama promised "unwavering support," but expect little for poor Haitians. He said:
"....our efforts are focused on several urgent priorities. First we're working to account for US embassy personnel and their families in Port-au-Prince, as well as the many American citizens who live and work in Haiti (around 40,000 or more)."
He also promised $100 million in aid, not for poor Haitians, for those who'll profit at their expense, and the amount is a trickle of what's needed.
Militarizing the city with US Marines and other forces comes next to protect the privileged, prevent looting, and restrain Haitians once they realize America won't help and has no concern for their welfare. Why now if never before?
Total control is top priority, the process currently underway with the Washington Post reporting on January 14 that the Pentagon dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, a large-deck amphibious ship, transport aircraft, and helicopters to Haiti. US Coast Guard vessels already patrol its coast to interdict fleeing Hatians and return them forcibly.
Air Force General Douglas Fraser said a Marine Expeditionary Unit with about 2,200 members will arrive in several days, and an 82nd Airborne Division 3,500-strong army brigade is on alert and ready to go, an advance team already sent - not to help, to take control at a time Haitians need food, clean water, shelter, medical care, heavy equipment to clear rubble, everything, not more armed killers, besides the hated UN force and repressive Haitian National Police.
Haitians in America Denied Temporary Protected Status
If Obama meant real support, he'd end decades of discriminatory policies and grant 30,000 undocumented Haitians in America Temporary Protected Status (TPS), what George Bush denied and so does Obama despite pressure throughout his first year to relent.
After Congress established TPS in 1990, Washington granted 260,000 Salvadorans, 82,000 Hondurans, and 5,000 Nicaraguans protection, then extended it on October 1, 2008. It lets the Attorney General grant temporary immigration status to undocumented residents unable to return home due to armed conflict, environmental disasters, or other "extraordinary and temporary conditions."
Besides El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, past recipient countries included Kuwait, Lebanon, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Guinea-Bissau, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Montserrat, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Angola. El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia, and Sudan still have it.
Haitians never got it, yet granting it is the simplest, least expensive form of aid to let them help by sending remittances back to families, more in need now than ever. In 2006, they sent $1.65 billion, the highest percentage from any foreign national group in the world. Cutting it off now is unthinkable.
Nonetheless, until the January 12 quake, TPS status was denied and deportations continued throughout Obama's first year. It's still denied with the Department of Homeland Security saying only that they're temporarily halted because of the current catastrophe. Nonetheless, the South Florida Haitian community is hopeful with Andre Pierre, Haitian-American mayor of North Miami saying on January 13:
"The White House is going to have to come up with something else within the next couple of days or next week at the latest. They are going to have to give TPS."
Miami activists unsuccessfully pushed for it throughout 2009, one of the most active being Cheryl Little, executive director of the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. Expressing frustration she said:
"Repeated calls for the US government to grant TPS to Haitians have been fruitless. If not now, when."
At a January 13 news conference, Representative Kendrick Meek (D. FL) said he believes it will come in "weeks or days," but, so far, the White House is firm in not doing it.
According to Director Randy McGorty of Catholic Legal Services for the Archdiocese of Miami in a February 2009 statement, it reflects "policy toward Haiti....based on racism. It's shocking. People (lack everything and) are starving. This callous disregard for human life is inexplicable," in commenting on how bad conditions were a year ago following the devastating summer 2008 storms.
Funding Wars, Not Haitian Relief
Will Obama pay greater heed now? If so, he didn't show it by immediate, decisive action on day one, the most critical moment to do it, by authorizing massive amounts of humanitarian aid and teams of skilled professionals to deliver it en masse.
Instead, according to the Washington Post on January 13, he'll "ask Congress for an additional $33 billion to fight unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on top of a record $708 billion for the Defense Department next year...."
In his first year in office, top priorities have been imperial wars, proxy ones in numerous countries, a new front in Yemen, militarizing Latin America mostly targeting Venezuela's Chavez, banker bailouts, a coup against the democratically elected Honduran leader, supporting Israeli crimes of war and against humanity, destabilizing Iran, tougher enforcement of homeland police state measures, and neglecting vital people needs. Can Haitians expect better?
Haiti is ill-equiped for natural disasters, let alone one of this magnitude. Heavy rescue equipment to clear debris is unavailable unless brought in, so rescuers are forced to dig through rubble with small implements and their bare hands, and can't reach people buried under collapsed buildings or trapped inside them.
Despite the calamity, televangelist Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition and notorious bigot, blamed Haitians for the it, saying on his January 13 Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) program:
"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and the people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French....and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. The said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.' True story. And so the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another."
This is the same man who blamed the 9/11 attack on abortionists, feminists, and others he frequently attacks.
Before the tragedy, most Haitians had no running water, electricity, sanitation, or other public services leaving them on their own, out of luck, and now out of it entirely with Washington-delivered relief expected only for the privileged, not them beyond lip service and the barest of essentials, way short of what's needed. Regional states will do what they can.
It's an old story for some of the most abused, exploited, and neglected people anywhere, mostly by their powerful northern neighbor about to betray them again at their moment of greatest need.
Some Facts About Haiti
The country is a text book example of oppressive rule, exploitation, extreme poverty, widespread unemployment, and overwhelming human misery - largely because of US dominance since the 19th century. From 1849 - 1913, navy ships entered Haitian waters 24 times to "protect American lives and property," and from 1915 - 1934, US Marines occupied and ravaged the country. Washington declared Haitians unfit to govern, imposed a new constitution giving US corporations free reign, and created repressive security forces to put down resistance and protect American interests. To this day nothing has changed as Haiti is still occupied - by a repressive UN paramilitary peacekeeper force.
Earlier, Washington supported successive despots, giving Haitians no relief except for their years under Aristide and Rene Preval's first administration. Aristide, in fact, had remarkable accomplishments despite facing formidable obstacles at home and from hostile Washington officials who never let up until they ousted him.
February 29, 2004 was the date when a Marine contingent forcibly removed him in the middle of the night, exiled him to Africa, and installed a fascist regime in his place.
Nothing is ever easy for Hatians, but afterwards conditions got measurably worse. In the best of times, the country is the hemisphere's poorest because of Washington's iron grip and its entrenched elitist rule, exerting repressive social and economic dominance throughout its colonial and post-colonial history. As a result, before the current crisis:
-- Haiti's wealth distribution ranked most unequal in a region that's the most unequal in the world;
-- 1% of Haitians control half the wealth and take full advantage to extract more;
-- 80% of Haitians endure extreme poverty; many don't have enough to eat;
-- 80% are unemployed or only have part-time or sporadic work;
-- sweatshop wages were 11 - 12 cents an hour and no benefits until parliament (in May 2009) passed a new minimum wage law providing for 200 gourdes or $5 dollars a day; Preval signed it only after getting it reduced to 125 gourdes or $3 a day; even so, employers may pay as little as they wish and get away with it as who'll challenge them;
-- the result is that three-fourths of Haitians live on less than $2 a day and over half on less than $1;
-- life expectancy is 52 years;
-- infant mortality is double the regional average at 76 per 1,000 births;
-- Haiti has the highest HIV/AIDs incidence outside of sub-Sararan Africa;
-- the World Bank ranks Haiti lowest in the hemisphere on sanitation, nutrition and available health services with only 25 doctors and 11 nurses per 100,000 population, and most rural areas are on their own;
-- well over half the population is food insecure and most Haitian children are undersized from malnutrition;
-- less than half have access to safe drinking water;
-- nearly 40% of Haitian children don't attend school;
-- fewer than 20% of Haitians aged 15 or over are literate;
-- an elite 5% of the population owns 75% of the arable land,
-- 5% control the economy, media, universities, professions, and Hatian politics; and
-- six dominant families control industrial production and trade; among them are rural landowners (grandons), their military allies, industrialists, merchants, and professionals in all fields, including academia and the media.
Some Final Comments
Hundreds of thousands around the country are still coping with the damage that summer 2008 storms caused leaving them without food, clean water, other essentials, and around 70,000 homes destroyed. Gonaives, Haiti's third largest city became uninhabitable. Most of Haiti's livestock and food crops were destroyed as well as farm tools and seeds for replanting. Irrigation systems were demolished, and buildings throughout the country collapsed or were damaged, many severely. Now this, affecting Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas with the overall toll yet to be assessed.
For poor Haitians, it's already known. Decimated by unimaginable hardships and depravation, they're on their own and out of luck because of the callous disregard for their lives and well-being.
Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to the Lendman News Hour on RepublicBroadcasting.org Monday - Friday at 10AM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on world and national issues. All programs are archived for easy listening.