For over a decade people have been asking me the same question. “Have things gotten better in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake?” Yes and no, I’d say. I’d note it had been X years since that quake; that the dead were long mourned, the rubble all cleared or repurposed (mostly by hand). I’d namecheck the latest disaster, physical or social: Zika, Hurricane Matthew, peyi lòk, the assassination, what have you.
If the conversation called for it, I might then issue my standard warning. The thing is, I’d say, the underlying dangers are all still the same. Homes and buildings are still built unsafely for a seismic zone. There are still no improved social or emergency services. The roads suck. Nothing got “built back better.” If the same earthquake struck again at the same place on the same fault line, it would be the same catastrophe all over again.
Well, it has happened again. Eleven years, seven months, and two days after the deadliest earthquake ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, a similar—apparently stronger, in fact—earthquake struck Haiti’s southern peninsula. It was not in the same spot (nor even the same fault). Rather, its epicenter was approximately 59 miles west of that of the January 12, 2010, goudougoudou—likely on the larger Enriquillo-Plantain Garden Fault to the south.
Many people reacted to the news this morning by saying something like “Haiti can’t catch a break.” On another day I’ll try to denature that concept—the idea that Haitians’ constant suffering comes down to luck. But as far as the day was concerned the opposite seems, if anything, to be the case: that the epicenter was positioned far enough to the west was an extraordinary break for Port-au-Prince and most of the 2010 quake zone, which as a result escaped largely unscathed. Given that the capital region is home to roughly a third of Haiti’s estimated 11 million people it was also, on the surface of things, a deeply lucky break for the Haitian people on a national scale.
That position was extraordinarily unlucky, however, for the people of the smaller cities on the far end of Haiti’s southern peninsula including Les Cayes (often referred to as Aux Cayes or Okay) and Jérémie. Those cities were not directly affected by the 2010 quake at all, but were still reeling from 2016’s devastating Hurricane Matthew, which was followed by an acute food shortage. Thanks to the wanton insecurity of the past few months, the roads to those cities had been effectively cut off from the capital, which (due in large part to the history of U.S. occupations of Haiti, *cough* *cough*) is the only place where people can access commerce, international trade, and political power at scale. Those places have now been further crushed.
It may be hard to understand the reactions of many of us who lived through the 2010 quake to the awful scenes that came out of southwestern Haiti today. I saw a video of a man surveying the freshly made damage. He exclaims at one point, “It looks like douz janvye!” (Meaning January 12—in Haiti it’s like 9/11, only bigger; you don’t have to say the year). He was there, navigating the dust cloud from the new quake, and yet he almost instinctively framed it in relation to that increasingly distant prior event.
I think part of it is the mind-numbingly epochal scale of the earlier quake. (Somewhere between 100,000 and 316,000 people died, millions were more injured or displaced—yet even those figures only give the faintest impression of what it was actually like.) But more than that, for me it least, it is a point of anger—a long-simmering rage—that we had told the world that this had happened and that easily happen again, and yet nothing changed. The foreign predations and manipulations continued. Haiti’s domestic corruption under the leadership of people groomed and boosted by Washington, Brussels, Paris, Ottawa, and New York far got worse. Instead of finding themselves empowered and financed to build safer homes, Haitians were simply more immiserated, to the point that a significant number of Haitians have found it preferable to fly to Brazil and literally walk across the continent to the U.S. border than stick it out in their beloved homes.
How? How, eleven years after entire cities fell down, are we being treated to scenes of more Haitian church roofs collapsing, more Haitian hotels pancaking, and more voices screaming from inside the rubble? Was it not enough last time? Will anything ever be?
For the moment, the full of extent of the tragedy in Haiti’s southwest is not yet known, and may not be known for days. I don’t have any answers as to how to help right now if you aren’t in southwestern Haiti (except this: don’t throw your money at the American Red Cross or any other international NGO). I don’t know how a country that doesn’t have a president, a functional legislature, nor any elected local officials after over five years of canceled elections is going to dig its way out of this mess. I hope, too, that the inbound Tropical Storm Grace lives up to its name. I’ll have more to say in the days to come. That’s all I’ve got for now.
Jonathan Myerson Katz is the author of the upcoming Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, The Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire (coming Jan. 18). On Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Update 8/15/21: Corrects garbled reference to video footage of recent quake.