What does re-building Haiti mean?

This post contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY

The January 12th 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 good institutions of government and, the sad catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans notwithstanding, that can respond quickly to save lives and help re-build them after the disaster.

Insurance is common.  Relatively few lives are lost and although the cost of the damage can seem large in absolute numbers, the losses in proportion to the size of the economy is quite small and can be coped with easily.  Look at the Dow in September 2005; the US economy as whole didn’t notice Katrina.

sand castles waiting to kill their inhabitants

And the Chinese economy didn’t notice the Sichuan Earthquake of 2008 either though around 70,000 people died.  China is still relatively poor in an absolute GDP per capita sense, but growing rapidly.

Both countries are large enough geographically to isolate the physical effects of disasters and have large enough economies that the effects of economic losses can be isolated as well; buffered by the total economic 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 experienced on January 12th.

Haiti had no well-functioning government institutions for emergency services before the disaster, so response was essentially impossible.

If there were building codes they were not enforced and not only because that would require a system of inspection by people who would not accept bribes, but because building structures that are strong costs more than building structures that may look strong but are actually very weak.

If there were building codes and building inspectors 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.

A lot of construction is of the style so typical of poorer parts of the world in which concrete is the chief material.

Columns and walls should be built with high quality cement with the right amount of sand, and sewn through with steel reinforcing bars – rebars.   That’s what gives them strength.

Next time you look at a video or a still image of damaged buildings in Haiti, look for rebars.  I haven’t seen any yet.  The reason is they are costly and hence they are left out or too few are used.

The cement is not high quality because good cement is also costly, and 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 re-attaching to the larger economy of the country.  Haiti cannot do that.

What is needed is that the aid that comes to Haiti from the international community has to rebuild the physical infrastructure, the houses, the stores, the hospitals and schools that were demolished in the quake of January 12th.

It must also rebuild the economy of Haiti that has been devastated over decades prior to that date – the slow but equally dreadful disaster of bad government, bad policy and associated environmental degradation that has left its economy 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 rebars 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.

Guest author

3 comments to “What does re-building Haiti mean?”

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  1. Laura Nasr - 22/01/2010 Reply

    Aid is, as it should be, often devoted to handling immediate problems: it is used to provide food and water, and to treat or prevent illness. It may be difficult to implement, but some aid must be earmarked for preventative action. Constructing buildings properly would have prevented great loss of life in this earthquake, but earthquakes are unpredictable, so that sort of work may have seemed less urgent than establishing a reliable water supply, for example. It is clear now that, in addition to dealing with immediate humanitarian concerns, Haiti must be rebuilt properly.

  2. SpenceG - 13/07/2012 Reply

    I’d like to say that Haiti has a chance to rebuild their cities with earthquakes in mind, but that will take a lot of money.

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