Home The Washington Diplomat June 2011

Quake-Ravaged Countries Share Challenges, Lessons of Rebuilding

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Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and Japan — four countries with little in common — are now united by the common experience of having been devastated by the worst earthquakes in their respective histories.

Yet while the Japan quake, tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis caused an estimated $300 billion in damages — making it the world's most expensive natural disaster ever — the earthquakes that recently struck Haiti, Chile and New Zealand caused far more damage as a proportion of those countries' relatively small economies.

Although the disasters were each different, all three nations have learned and continue to draw critical lessons as they rebuild and recover from their individual tragedies. But perhaps the most vital lesson of all is the one that distinguishes one calamity from all the others: the importance of disaster preparedness, so painfully illustrated in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. 

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Credit: UN Photo / Marco Dormino
Children jump rope in a rubble-strewn street in Port-au-Prince. Although Haiti has made progress in removing the rubble, officially only 20 percent of the debris has been cleared in the year and a half since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated what was already the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

The numbers, sadly, speak for themselves. In highly developed New Zealand, a February 6.3-magnitude earthquake killed 181 people, while a more powerful one a few months earlier didn't result in a single casualty. In Chile, another seismically active country, a February 8.8 quake killed more than 500 people.

And in Japan, world-renowned for its strict building codes and sturdy construction designed to withstand the worst Mother Nature can throw at it, the death toll may climb as high as 25,000 from the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11 that swallowed entire swaths of the coastline and even shifted the nation by several feet.

Yet as horrific as Japan's death toll is, it still pales in comparison to Haiti, where a magnitude-7.0 quake — less powerful than what struck Japan and Chile — back in January 2010 claimed more than 230,000 lives, left some 1.5 million homeless and caused damages that actually exceeded the country's meager GDP by at least $1 billion.

When the quake hit Haiti, the country's flimsy buildings crumpled like matchsticks in the overcrowded capital of Port-au-Prince, where today, tent cities threaten to become permanent fixtures for the roughly 1 million Haitians who remain homeless, while reconstruction efforts have barely made a dent in the overwhelming wreckage (not to mention a separate cholera outbreak that's sickened 300,000 and killed 5,000).

The May 14 inauguration of a new president after months of political unrest has sparked tepid hope that the desperately poor country will finally begin climbing out of its perpetual misery. Haiti's new president, Michel Martelly — a flamboyant pop singer turned political newcomer — promised tangible results during his first 100 days in office. Whether "Sweet Micky" (who's shed the diapers he used to wear on stage for somber presidential suits) has what it takes to lead this deeply troubled country remains to be seen.

At the very least though, his charisma and energy mark a refreshing change from his seemingly paralyzed predecessor, René Préval, who was rarely seen in public after the quake or in the squalid tarp-covered tent cities — including one right across from the dilapidated presidential palace, where thousands of Haitians still struggle for survival.

Raymond Joseph — who served as Haiti's ambassador before, during and for half a year after the earthquake until he resigned last year to run for president himself — says his government has failed miserably.

"During her recent meeting at the State Department with Martelly, Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton said that only 20 percent of the rubble had been disposed of since the quake," Joseph told The Diplomat in a phone interview from Port-au-Prince, where he's negotiating for some sort of official position with the new government.

"If 15 months later, only 20 percent of the rubble has been removed, this is a failure. If you come to Haiti now, you'll see tent cities that appear to be permanent. The people here are so angry. Préval has been absent from Day One and continues to be absent. That's why in the last election they voted overwhelmingly against his party."

In the months following the earthquake, Joseph said he became so disillusioned with Préval that he finally decided to quit his job in August after having served in Washington since 2005. Throughout his tenure, Joseph advocated for the decentralization of Port-au-Prince, relocating some of its 2 million inhabitants outside the shantytowns that litter the capital city, where experts fear buildings are being hastily reconstructed by even shoddier standards than before, creating another recipe for disaster.

For now, Joseph said he's seeing signs of rebirth and houses being built here and there, "but this has all been done by the NGOs," he complained, referring to the thicket of nongovernmental organizations that have flocked to help Haiti, but have also complicated the disorganized reconstruction campaign. "I have not seen any plan of action by the government."

What Joseph did see from the government was greed. "I have challenged the regime since then and have exposed whatever corruption I saw, especially in customs. After the earthquake, I had a lot of NGOs that wanted to help Haiti, but their products and equipment were kept at customs warehouses where officials were asking for money under the table. That was one of the reasons I resigned," he said.

Edmond Mulet, chief of MINUSTAH — the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti — agrees that corruption is endemic, but disagrees that no progress has been made in cleanup efforts since the quake.

"It's really amazing. You don't see any rubble in the main arteries anymore," said Mulet, a veteran Guatemalan diplomat whose assignment in Haiti ended May 31 and who had returned to the post after his predecessor was killed by the 2010 quake. "All schools have been cleared of rubble and UNICEF has been able to set up temporary structures. More people are cleaning up their own pieces of land, though it's mainly been a private-sector effort."

The problem is that the crippled Haitian government isn't yet capable of keeping the streets safe, let alone financing an entire army, he says.

"Right now, they don't even pay their policemen," Mulet lamented. "There's corruption among the police, there's corruption in customs, there's corruption at all levels. One of the things the new government must focus on is confronting this corruption, to stop with this culture of impunity in Haiti and investigate whoever is involved."

Added former Ambassador Joseph: "Martelly speaks about having a Haitian national police force. I'm for that. But we cannot be depending on MINUSTAH for the rest of our lives."

The people at MINUSTAH agree, and the idea is to eventually phase out the U.N. presence and replace it with Haitian military and police institutions. But that could take quite a while, given the current political and economic struggles and Haiti's long history of governance failure.

"MINUSTAH has been on the ground here for seven years, so we would now like to downsize," said Mulet, who oversees a force of 12,000 peacekeepers and a $793 million annual budget. "Our role has changed dramatically, from guaranteeing safety and security to humanitarian assistance, then the delivery of food and water, then the cholera outbreak. And during the election, we played a very important role with logistical support. Now we need to work with the new government."

Joining the new president will be Mariano Fernández, a former foreign minister from Chile and ambassador in Washington who was recently named Mulet's successor to the seven-year-old international peacekeeping force.

On a broader scale, the United Nations has for years tried to highlight the effectiveness of disaster preparedness in saving lives and money. The U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) pushes low-profile but high-impact measures such as installing early warning systems, educating the public and carrying out evacuation drills, adapting to climate change, building disaster-resilient structures, and improving governmental cooperation — as well as simple steps such as reinforcing drainage systems to reduce the likelihood of floods.

The UNISDR held a "Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction" in Geneva in May, against the backdrop of flooding in the U.S. South and an earthquake in Spain. The group is also specifically targeting its efforts on cities, spurred by the fact that by 2030, the United Nations predicts that 60 percent of the world's population will live in urban areas.

"We cannot stop cities growing but we can start planning them in a more sustainable way," UNISDR chief Margareta Wahlström said in a recent statement, noting that disaster risk reduction is also "essential to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by protecting development investments."

Wahlström pointed out that lax regulations in Haiti's urban shantytowns compounded the catastrophic January earthquake. In comparison, the magnitude of the quake that happened a month later in Chile was far greater than the one in Haiti, but claimed a tiny fraction of lives.

That massive earthquake was centered along Chile's Pacific coast southwest of Santiago. At 8.8 on the Richter scale, the Feb. 27 quake was the world's sixth largest ever to be recorded by a seismograph (the strongest was the 1960 Valdivia quake, also in Chile, which measured 9.5 on the Richter scale).

The 2010 disaster killed 562 people and caused $30 billion in damage, which is equivalent to 18 percent of the country's GDP. More specifically, it damaged or destroyed 370,000 homes, 200 bridges, 4,000 schools and nearly 100 hospitals.

Arturo Fermandois, Chile's ambassador to the United States, said that despite his country's economic gains in recent years and long history of earthquakes, looking back, it's clear his country wasn't as well prepared for this latest disaster as it could have been.

"Although we were very successful in facing the immediate consequences of the earthquake, our most urgent problem was that we didn't have an emergency task force prepared for going to the damaged areas and working efficiently under one chain of command," he told The Diplomat.

"We used the military, civil volunteers and government officials, for example, but we didn't have a specific group of people prepared to go the very same day," Fermandois explained. "We also didn't have a sufficient system of communications for receiving information about the tsunami, nor did we have an efficient way to communicate that a tsunami was coming through radio, cell phones, sirens and TV."

Following harsh criticism that it ignored warnings sent by the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center — which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people — Chile's National Office of Emergency of the Interior Ministry (known by its Spanish acronym ONEMI) was completely revamped to improve its effectiveness.

"The most important lesson was that we needed to improve the chain of command and have one place where decisions are taken," said Fermandois, echoing a common problem in post-disaster environments: a lack of central organization. "There were too many people providing information to different officials. We had different ministers, the director of ONEMI, the minister of interior, the minister of defense and the president involved, but we didn't have one war room with a few people taking decisions and receiving information from a reliable, single source. It was an organizational mistake. That's since been corrected."

ONEMI has also received help from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which itself came under heavy criticism following its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"We didn't copy the FEMA system, but did get some help and suggestions on how to fight disasters. There's been close cooperation between the U.S. and Chile on this," said the ambassador, adding that "for practical purposes, we need to act like the chances of having another earthquake are very high."

In New Zealand, people are still on edge after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake devastated Christchurch, the country's second-largest city, earlier this year. Thousands of aftershocks have struck since the Feb. 22 temblor — which itself followed an even more powerful magnitude-7 quake on Sept. 4, although that quake did less damage. This time around though the city was far less fortunate, with the 2011 quake killing 181 people and causing upward of $12 billion in damage, according to New Zealand's ambassador in Washington, Michael Moore.

"If you talk of Hurricane Katrina costing the U.S. economy 1 percent of GDP, then this earthquake cost us between 6 and 9 percent of GDP," he said. "In economic terms, this is like the U.S. losing Detroit, Chicago, Miami and Houston."

Moore, a former prime minister of New Zealand, said a U.S.-New Zealand Partnership meeting was under way in Christchurch when the quake hit, unnerving several visiting American officials.

"The first quake in September was bigger than Haiti's, but nobody got hurt. Then we had 3,000 smaller quakes and then the big one hit — and that's when the city fell over," he told us.

Although smaller in magnitude than the 2010 quake that struck the Canterbury region, the later quake was far more devastating, leading Prime Minister John Key to state that Feb. 22 "may well be New Zealand's darkest day." It was much closer to Christchurch than the previous quake and shallower at five kilometers underground, whereas the September quake was 10 kilometers deep.

In addition, the later quake occurred on a weekday during lunchtime when Christchurch's central business district was packed, causing many fatalities. More than half of those who died were foreign tourists and students at a language school, including 20 Japanese students.

In a particularly tragic twist, said Moore, one Japanese student survived the Christchurch quake as her dormitory collapsed around her — only to learn later on that her parents had been killed in the magnitude-9.0 quake that devastated northern Japan.

"Downtown Christchurch is completely demolished. We will rebuild the city, but we're still thinking this through," Moore said, noting that the most important landmarks of Christchurch — including the city's cathedral and basilica — have been reduced to rubble. "We have high standards like the Japanese, but this was an unusual quake."

Jonathan Ling, chief executive officer of Fletcher Building Ltd. who's been commissioned by the government to reconstruct homes in the city, estimated that it could take up to 20 years to fully rebuild Christchurch, one-third of whose business district was demolished. On the flip side, Ling noted that New Zealand's building industry could grow by 10 percent each year during the next decade as a result of the reconstruction campaign.

Moore said he's been struck by the generosity of ordinary people and the business community. Employees of the New Zealand Embassy raised $10,000 for quake relief, then held a gala dinner in April (featuring Kiwi native Phil Keoghan, host of the TV series "The Amazing Race") that raised another $200,000. Several U.S. companies have also donated $1 million each, the ambassador noted, "but what's more touching is the person who sends us $50 with a shaky, handwritten letter, or some school you never heard of that sends us a couple of thousand dollars."

Even though this country of 4 million inhabitants enjoys one of the world's highest standards of living, it has already begun feeling the economic jolt caused by the earthquake.

"We'll have to borrow, and we'll have to work harder. There's a big debate whether to impose a special tax," said Moore. "A tax is good but it'll stunt growth. That's a political decision."

Yet in a way, New Zealanders were lucky because the country has compulsory re-insurance and a compulsory levy on home insurance policies (also see "New Zealand's Mike Moore: Kiwi Optimism Will Prevail" in the October 2010 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

"That goes to an Earthquake and War Damage Commission. The money is invested offshore and reinsured through big re-insurance companies, so a major part of the damages will be covered," explained Moore, pointing out it's only natural for a country that regularly experiences disasters to have strategies in place to deal with the inevitable aftermath.

"This happens all the time. If you live in Florida, you expect hurricanes, and earthquakes are a part of living in New Zealand."


About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 19, 2014