Haiti Badly Shaken by 7.0 Magnitude Earthquake

Port-au-Prince is devastated by a disaster aggravated by weak infrastructure. UCLA students and faculty members familiar with the country put the tragedy in context in this Daily Bruin article.

By Samantha Masunaga for The Daily Bruin

A 7.0 MAGNITUDE earthquake hit the island nation of Haiti Tuesday, demolishing the capital city of Port-au-Prince and possibly killing thousands.

News reports of the devastation have been grim, as numerous landmarks in Port-au-Prince have collapsed, including the National Palace and government offices, which were thought to be more structurally sound than other buildings.

This disaster is the latest of Haiti's problems, which include extreme poverty, past political instability and weak infrastructure.

The epicenter of the quake is estimated to be located southwest of the capital, an area overcrowded and overpopulated.

"It was a disaster waiting to happen," said Donald Cosentino, a professor in the world arts and culture department who researches Haitian voodoo and culture and has visited the Caribbean country several times. "What happened (Tuesday) was unbelievable."

One of his graduate students, Katherine Smith, echoed Cosentino's statement, and said she wondered about the seismic stability of the city during one of her many research visits to Haiti.

Although the Caribbean nation has been plagued by other natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, the recent earthquake is unprecedented and rare, said Robin Derby, a history professor who conducts research in Haiti.

"It's hard to imagine the future of Port-au-Prince," she said. "The city doesn't even have functional garbage collection, much less disaster relief."

Derby will be flying to Haiti on Saturday to collect stories for a project on Haitian narratives, and while the rural area in which she will be staying is unharmed, she is bracing herself for the packed flight, as well as the airport conditions.

While professors remain optimistic about the nation's recovery, their expectations are realistic.

"In terms of shelter and basic needs, it's just so many things have been leveled. It's going to be difficult," said Patrick Polk, a lecturer in the department of world arts and culture who has traveled to Haiti several times.

He added that the country's poverty also decreases the possibility of a complete recovery.

"There's such short supply as it is. Just thinking about rebuilding infrastructure – it's hard to imagine," Polk said.

Smith said she hoped disaster relief efforts would result in better infrastructure, such as more suitable water systems. However, she said Haiti's rebuilding difficulties have not been addressed in the past, in spite of numerous disasters.

Furthermore, the destruction in Port-au-Prince could impact other areas of the nation that were physically unharmed by the quake, based on the disruption of transportation routes, Smith said, adding that she was afraid this would result in food shortages throughout the nation.

However, Smith emphasized the resourcefulness and camaraderie among the Haitian people as a major factor in the nation's recovery.

Since the people were already used to surviving against the odds and helping each other, she said she did not expect to see looting or rioting in the aftermath of the quake.

President Barack Obama has promised humanitarian aid to Haiti, and countries such as France, Venezuela, Canada and Mexico have expressed similar sentiments.

But for some, the promise of U.S. aid seems contradictory to past interactions with Haiti.

"We have to see this disaster as something we had a hand in," Derby said, referencing the U.S.'s past economic embargoes against Haiti, as well as its support of the Duvalier regime, which was characterized by private military control and terrorist groups.

Polk said he believed Obama's assurance of aid, as the president spoke favorably of being a better friend to Haiti, and also emphasized the good that the U.S.'s economic investment could do for the Caribbean country.

"Maybe this is the time when the world will answer a call that has been out there for a long time," Polk said.

Published: Friday, January 15, 2010