Catastophic earthquake rocks Haiti
After making it through the hurricane season of 2009 without a scratch, Haiti's terrible earthquake of January 12, 2010 has brought a catastrophe of unfathomable magnitude to the impoverished people of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake was centered just ten miles southwest of the capital of Port-au-Prince, at a shallow depth of 6.2 miles, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The shock occurred in the boundary region separating the Caribbean plate and the North America plate. The two plates slide past each other at a rate of about 0.8 inches (20 mm) per year, with the Caribbean plate moving eastward with respect to the North America plate. The fault that produced the quake is called the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault system, and last produced a major earthquake in 1860. According to the USGS (Figure 1), 238,000 people near the quake's epicenter experienced violent to extreme shaking, capable of causing very heavy damage. A further 3.2 million people experienced very strong to severe shaking, capable of causing moderate to heavy damage. Another 1.3 million people experienced strong shaking, capable of causing moderate damage. Haiti's total population is just 9 million, so half the country's population lived in areas that received moderate to very heavy damage from the earthquake. The quake did not generate a large tsunami, though a tsunami of 5 inches (12 cm) was recorded at Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. It is possible that a local scale, moderately destructive tsunami was generated close to the shores of Port-au-Prince.
Figure 1. Earthquake shaking map for the January 12, 2010 Haitian earthquake, from the USGS. According to the USGS, 238,000 people near the quake's epicenter experienced violent to extreme shaking, capable of causing very heavy damage. A further 3.2 million people experienced very strong to severe shaking, capable of causing moderate to heavy damage. Another 1.3 million people experienced strong shaking, capable of causing moderate damage. Haiti's total population is just 9 million, so half the country's population lived in areas that received moderate to very heavy damage from the earthquake.
One of the greatest natural disasters in Haitian history
In many ways, the hurricane season of 2008 was the cruelest ever experienced in Haiti. Four storms--Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike--dumped heavy rains on the impoverished nation. The rugged hillsides, stripped bare of 98% of their forest cover thanks to deforestation, let flood waters rampage into large areas of the country. Particularly hard-hit was Gonaives, the fourth largest city. According to reliefweb.org, Haiti suffered 793 killed, with 310 missing and another 593 injured. The hurricanes destroyed 22,702 homes and damaged another 84,625. About 800,000 people were affected--8% of Haiti's total population. The flood wiped out 70% of Haiti's crops, resulting in dozens of deaths of children due to malnutrition in the months following the storms. Damage was estimated at over $1 billion, the costliest natural disaster in Haitian history. The damage amounted to over 5% of the country's $17 billion GDP, a massive blow for a nation so poor.
Thus when it became clear that the hurricane season of 2009 would spare Haiti further misery, I was delighted that our suffering neighbors would get a chance to regroup and rebuild. But the unimaginable destruction wrought by yesterday's quake is a staggering blow for a nation so poor. When the damage is tallied and compared to Haiti's GDP of $17 billion, the earthquake of 2010 could well prove to be one of the most devastating disasters in world history. Further, Haiti's population is only 9 million, and the number of people killed, injured, and made homeless will make up a huge fraction of the Haitian population.
Figure 2. An earthquake hazard map for the Caribbean reveals that yesterday's quake occurred in a relatively low-risk portion of the Caribbean. Image credit: USGS.
Haitian earthquake history
The western portion of Haiti where yesterday's quake occurred is in a relatively low seismic risk region of the Caribbean (Figure 2). Large quakes are uncommon in Haiti. The worst quake in Haitian history was probably the May 7, 1842 magnitude 7.7 Cap-Haitien earthquake. This massive tremor hit a fault on the northern portion of the island, killing 10,000; three hundred of these deaths were from a large tsunami generated by the quake. One of the largest cities in Haiti--Cap-Haitien, with a population of 60,000--was destroyed, with the loss of 6,000 lives.
Caribbean earthquake history
The Eastern Caribbean is no stranger to devastating earthquakes. The Caribbean Plate slides against the North American Plate along a line running through most of the islands in the Eastern Caribbean, generating frequent earthquakes. According to the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center, the most severe quake to hit the region occurred on February 8, 1843, when a tremor estimated at 8.0 - 8.5 on the Richter Scale struck the Lesser Antilles Islands. Heavy damage was reported from St. Maarten to Dominica. In Antigua, the English Harbour sank. In Point-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, all masonry construction was destroyed, and a fire broke out that burned down the remaining wooden structures. One third of the population, estimated at 4,000 - 6,000 persons, perished. The event was felt as far south as Caracas and British Guiana and was even felt 2,000 km away in Washington D.C., Vermont, and Charlestown, South Carolina. The largest Eastern Caribbean earthquake recorded by modern seismographs was the El Cibao earthquake in the Dominican Republic in 1946. The earthquake was of magnitude 8.1 and generated a tsunami which caused 75 deaths and rendered 20,000 homeless.
Figure 3. Smoke and dust rise from the rubble of Port-au-Prince a few minutes after the catastrophic earthquake of January 12, 2010. Image is from an anonymous YouTube video taken from a house overlooking Port-au-Prince.
Lambi Fund of Haiti and Portlight mobilize to help out
For the past five years, I've been a contributor and booster of the Lambi Fund of Haiti, a charity that is very active in promoting reforestation efforts, use of alternative fuels, and infrastructure improvements at a grass-roots level in Haiti. I've developed a great respect for the work they do in the country, and have gotten to know Karen Ashmore, the executive director of the charity, and have written articles for their newsletter. Karen wrote me last night with this plea for help: "Most buildings in Port-Au-Prince have been damaged or have collapsed, which would include homes of staff and families we work with, as well as the grain mills, sugar cane mills, and sites for community economic development. And cisterns and latrines we have supported for safe drinking water and sanitation. Major rebuilding effort needed. Please post on your blog".
To help the Lambi Fund rebuild what was destroyed, visit their on-line donation page. Keep in mind that they are second responders--their aim is not to provide for the immediate needs of food, water, and medicine, but to rebuild the Haitian infrastructure and economy.
Portlight.org, the remarkable disaster-relief charity that has sprung up from the hard work and dedication of many members of the wunderground.com community, has also mobilized to help out the victims of the Haitian earthquake. As Paul Timmons writes in the Portlight blog this morning,
Portlight's focus in this is going to be on people with disabilities in Haiti...providing medical equipment, shelter, and food for them...there is an article below about the treatment of this population in the best of times...and this ain't the best of times...
We have a "Go" container in Atlanta which will ship out in a few days...and an ongoing relationship with a community of Catholic sisters in Port au Prince who will be opening shelters...
Any funds we raise will be used to defray shipping costs of medical and clinical equipment...and for the purchase of food and other shelter supplies...Haiti is our neighbor...and Haitians are certainly forgotten people...people with disabilities in Haiti are frequently barely seen as human...
Anyone interested in going to Haiti to help staff one or more shelters for Haitians with disabilities please WU mail us...
So, please visit the Portlight.org blog to learn more and to donate. Portlight is acting as a first responder, to answer the immediate needs of the Haitian people for water, food, and medical equipment. Portlight is exploring ways they can work together with the Lambi Fund of Haiti to put the materials donated where they are most needed. If you're interested in sponsoring an Honor Walk to help raise funds for the Haitians, please contact Paul Timmons of Portlight, via the Portlight.org blog. Thank you.
There are two things Haiti does have going for it in the wake of this horrible tragedy. Firstly, it is not hurricane season, so the Haitians have six months to rebuild and shelter their homeless before the storms of summer arrive. There is a large mass of dry air over the Caribbean at present, so there will be dry weather for relief operations for at least the next few days. Secondly, former President Bill Clinton was appointed the UN Special Envoy to Haiti last year, and he brings an important visible face to the needs of Haiti's suffering people. A huge amount of aid will be needed for this tragedy.
My thoughts and prayers are with all the victims and relatives of those affected by the earthquake.
I'll have a new post on Friday.