The scale of the disaster left even veteran disaster responders stunned, people who had seen first hand the savagery of nature elsewhere, in the Americas, in sub-Saharan Africa and in countries like Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan and China. The magnitude-7 earthquake – the biggest to hit Haiti for 200 years – may have left as many as 200,000 people dead and up to a million homeless. But figures cannot express what happened. The capital, Port-au-Prince, and outlying areas lay in ruin.
No one escaped the tragedy. As always when disaster strikes this Caribbean nation, Haitian Red Cross volunteers were among the first to respond but this was like nothing they had known before. As they scrambled to assist their communities they themselves were grieving. They, too, had lost homes and loved ones, and friends and relatives were among the missing. The perseverance of 2,000 of them was nothing less than heroic.
Within a week of the 12 January quake, more than 400 Red Cross and Red Crescent workers from around the world were with them and many more were on the way. Before the end of the month 600 had been deployed with 30 National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies in country, a strong regional presence – Caribbean, Central and South American – among them.
They set up emergency hospitals, got basic health care functioning, and by month’s end were treating 1,600 patients a day. Relief supplies had been delivered to more than 122,000 people, 14 million litres of water provided, and 70 relief flights had landed in Haiti or the neighbouring Dominican Republic to support what was fast becoming one of our largest and most complex operations in recent memory.
Roots of catastrophe
Amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince, Tadateru Konoé, President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, summed up the challenge. “We must confront a natural disaster that is not only one of the biggest of the past decade,” he said, “but is affecting one of the very poorest countries in the world.”
Poverty lies at the root of the catastrophe and countless lives were lost because little had been invested in measures to limit the impact of natural hazards. The level of damage and the resulting overwhelming needs are a direct result of poverty and under-development.
The disaster of Haiti is not the earthquake. What we are seeing here is what happens when an extreme natural event occurs in the lives of people who are already frighteningly vulnerable.
Our challenge now is to help Haiti recover from the earthquake and to overcome its past deprivation. The experience the Red Cross and Red Crescent has gained from five years of post-tsunami work will be invaluable, for we must ensure that Haiti’s devastated communities receive not only the help that they need now but the help they will need for a long, long while to come.
This is a rare opportunity to affect large-scale change where it is so desperately needed. It is also an opportunity to put power into the hands of the people affected by the disaster. This is already being done as we prioritize community outreach and beneficiary communications that empowers and equips people to be true partners in thier recovery. The recovery process will take years – perhaps even a generation – but it is our best chance to turn Haiti’s fortunes around. Together, we must transform tragedy into opportunity.
If you are interested you can view or download a special one month anniversary report here.