The Haiti earthquake, which occurred on January 12th, Tuesday, 2010, was measured as 7.0 on the Richter Scale. The epicenter was 15 miles from the Haitian city of Port-Au-Prince, the principle city on the west side of the island (of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Destruction of structures and infrastructure was extensive, and the loss of life, based on wildly variable estimates, may run as much as 100,000.
Haiti is a typically backward Third World nation, with widespread poverty, and an history of government instability and corruption. Like many Central and South American metropolises, Port-Au-Prince has huge areas of slum shanty-towns, where ordinary municipal services are marginal, at best. Even before the earthquake there was rampant unemployment, crime, disease, and shortages of all kinds. The economy has been in a shambles, per capita income is among the lowest in the world, and agricultural subsistence has led to heavy deforestation. The place is a mess, and has been for decades.
Haiti is in a known earthquake zone, but the difficulty in predicting significant, potentially damaging quakes, prevents us from knowing, really, when a big temblor is likely to occur anywhere on the earth. Seismic science may never be effective in predicting events, since the underlying structure of the tectonic plates may never be susceptible to accurate mapping and measurement. Most earthquake science is empirical, rather than confirmative, and hence always subject to revisions. When it comes to prediction, we haven't really made any significant progress towards that understanding since the 19th Century.
Preparing for earthquakes is a controversial subject, and one I can't cover here in any detail, but there's been a growing movement towards general "preparedness" in areas known to be candidates for big events, but there are still large cities--such as Port-Au-Prince in Haiti--where really nothing was done in anticipation. The last large quake occurred almost two hundred years ago. That infrequency accounts in large measure for the passive complacency seen almost everywhere that such things do happen. How much are we willing to spend to reinforce the construction of buildings, highways, bridges, etc., to safe-guard against the "secondary" effects of disastrous natural events? Tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, hailstorms, volcanic eruptions, severe earthquakes, landslides, and severe ice- and wind- and snow-storms, all test our intention to maintain permanent settlements on the land. Given their relative infrequency, how much resource can we afford to dedicate to events that may happen only once in a generation, or even every four, five, or ten (or more) generations, or every five centuries?
I live within spitting distance of the Hayward Fault in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area, where geologists have been predicting a sizable event for the last three decades. But they really don't know for sure when such an event might occur. It could be tomorrow, or it could be 100 years from now. When it occurs, it might be a 6 or a 7 or an 8 or even a 9 Richter event--they really have no idea. Without more accurate data about it, what steps should a reasonably cautious populace (or government) take to guard its own safety?
Why was the Port-Au-Prince earthquake so damaging, and could anything have been done to moderate its effects, short of designing a "bunker" city out of steel and reinforced wood frame structures? Could Haiti even have afforded to consider undertaking such a program? Can any society reasonably be expected to "prepare" (at great expense) for events that may be decades, or even centuries, away?
There are several observations that are useful in reviewing the consequences of the Haiti earthquake. First, the Haitian infrastructure was a disaster waiting to happen. Most all the buildings were constructed in unreinforced concrete or concrete block, a building form that is notorious for not standing up in quakes. Anyone inside such a structure is at great risk during an earthquake of even moderate size. Second, buildings constructed on landfill, or on unstable slopes, are subject to sliding and slippage. One look at the photograph above should be very instructive in this regard. As a basis for comparison, the San Francisco Bay Area "Loma Prieta" earthquake, which was actually just a little larger than the Haiti quake, measuring 7.1 on the Richter Scale, did much less damage comparatively--indeed, except for the "Cypress [freeway] Structure" in Oakland, and a few elegant row houses along the waterfront facing the Northern Shore of San Francisco, there would hardly have been much severe damage at all in the Bay Area. The reason it was experienced as a much less damaging event was that the vast majority of structures here were either built from reinforced steel frame, or substantially reinforced wood beam. In other words, the potential for damage here, was many times less simply as a result of traditional regional building practices.
The real issue in the aftermath of Haiti post-quake disaster, is the degree to which that nation, like almost all of the Central and South American nations and cities, was not only unprepared for any calamity of this consequence, it had been allowed to grow so far out of proportion and balance to its immediate environment, and beyond its ability to respond to such crises--not just of the "natural" kind, but to every other kind, including, for instance, plagues and pandemics, or political unrest, or economic fluctuations--that it had become a time-bomb, which any kind of small fuse might set off. Thus, a "relatively" mild quake of 7.0, nearly exact in severity to one which had hit a much larger metropolitan area in Northern California about 20 years earlier, caused 1000 times more damage.
Estimates of the relief effort needed to address the dead, sick and injured, homeless, hungry, etc., as well as destroyed housing, infrastructure, etc., are in the hundreds of millions. The Haitian government is reported to be "non-existent"--completely unable to respond. Rather than wait for international aid organizations, and the United Nations, to act, the Obama Administration has committed the U.S. to a major intervention, involving the American Military, airlifts, food, supplies, medical and rescue teams, and money, to establish a baseline of relief for a nation in total chaos.
How far should the U.S. go in expenditure of aid, to a country which took almost no responsibility for itself, or its people? Should there be a price-tag on our generosity? Does humanitarian obligation outweigh every other consideration? Did our government respond to the Katrina crisis with anything like the same urgency and efficiency in August 2005? Did our government show the same compassion and dedication to helping its own citizens, that it now lavishes on the those of another Western Hemisphere Caribbean nation? Embarrassing questions, you say?
At a time when our own nation is suffering the long-term effects of a declining economy, the erosion of its middle-class, deepening unemployment, decay of its industrial base, and two exhausting (and largely unsuccessful Asian wars of attrition), how far should we be willing to go in adopting yet another needy nation (and its burgeoning, out-of-control population and chaotic economy)? How about France, whose history of exploitation of Haiti is one of the great scandals of the Colonial Age--has it ponied up to help its old colony? Not bloody likely.
What seems most needed in America's long-term diplomatic outlook, is a reasonable policy of self-help and orderly improvement. If we feel compelled to regard every other nation in the world--its citizens, its safety, its security, its prosperity--as our international "responsibility" we need some kind of reciprocal code with which to bargain. Paternalism and ethical sanctimoniousness may have worked for Western Nations in the Colonial period, but there are clearly limits to the sense of responsibility governments have a right to demand of their constituencies. After Iraq was shown to have had neither weapons of mass destruction, nor a real Al Quaeda presence, the Bush Administration prided itself (instead) on having effected the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime, enabling a new era of potential democratic reform. This claim was accepted by Americans as a valid (fall-back) pretext for our preemptive invasion and continued occupation, even though it was never posed as the original excuse. Now, in Afghanistan, we've apparently changed the game again, from our original purpose of ousting the Taliban and capturing the Al Quaeda cell there, to resuscitating the entire nation of Afghanistan (i.e., "nation-building").
Now we're told that several tens of thousands of Haitians, here in America illegally, will be granted "TPS"--or temporary protected status--not subject to deportation, for at least one year, probably indefinitely. We can expect that immigration rights activists will use the Haitian crisis as leverage to open our borders to hundreds of thousands more from Haiti, seeking escape from hardships of life in their native country. If "hardship" were the determining factor in our immigration policies for the rest of the hemisphere, not to speak of the world, what limit (if any) could we put on the numbers of qualified candidates for refugee status?
We give untold billions of dollars in TARP funds to our banks, money which ends up in the pockets of investment bankers as pay-bonuses and golden parachutes, but we can't tax them, because that might discourage initiative and hurt the rewards system on Wall Street (after all, a million dollars more or less in a given year, is insufficient movitation--right?--to discriminate between one fat cat executive or hot-shot trader and another). We can afford to rush immediate medical aid to the victims of Port-Au-Prince, but we can't afford modest health care to the poorest of our own citizens. We can afford to treat every Central and South American national who wanders into our hospital emergency wards, but we can't afford health plans for our own "working" poor.
Poverty, as well as injustice, tends to make people bitter. If we're such a rich nation, where's the evidence of it in the lives we lead? We're supposed to take responsibility for Iraqi and Afghan and Pakistani and Mexican and Haitian and Columbian and Honduran and Indian and Chinese citizens, but woe to him who would lay claim to his own birthright and demand the same benefits and consideration from his own government.
I'm all for the aid and comfort we've committed to provide to the citizens of Haiti, but I'd like to see our government show the same compassion and concern for the welfare and needs of its own citizenry, not just in crisis situations, but all the time. And if we're committed to helping needy people everywhere, in every nation, at any moment, that generosity and largesse should come with a price-tag. First on the invoice should be birth control. If you can't control your population, or if 90% of your people live in abject hopelessness, you go to the bottom of the relief list. In America, we make a big deal out of earning rewards, of showing initiative, and rewarding success through hard work, preventative measures, and careful planning. Why shouldn't these principles form the basis of our diplomatic policies abroad? Should we demand of Americans that they must have a higher standard of entitlement than that which we ask of those we give hand-outs to?