PORT-AU-PRINCE – We know these images from the wars: Homes whose roofs collapsed into the earth, refugees walking slowly, one family after another, carrying their belongings on theirs heads and the horror on their faces. We are also familiar with the odor – that sweet, sickly smell of bodies rotting under the ruins.
However, only the World Wars saw this kind of destruction and loss, in London, Tokyo, or Berlin. Port-au-Prince, a town whose real capacity is half a million people yet in practice is home to about three million looks as though a higher power cut it into slices, like a cake. One house was razed to the ground while the house next to it was only marginally damaged. One neighborhood disappeared while the neighborhood next to it remained intact. Destiny did not make distinctions between poor and poorer. The blow was delivered blindly.
Haiti carnage (Photo: AFP)
Haiti is the poorest state in the Western hemisphere and one of the world's 10 poorest countries. Seventy percent of the population makes less than two dollars per day. It has a longstanding tradition of dictatorial, corrupt, and mostly inefficient rule.
The government of Haiti does not exist in fact when it comes to the international effort to deal with the disaster. In a conversation with me, a senior official in an international aid organization characterized the local government's response as "shock." She said officials just sit there and stare, while proposing nothing. She made a similar comment about officials in neighboring Dominican Republic, which was not hit by the disaster. They will not be bringing salvation.
The town is now being raided by aid teams from various First World states as well as human rights groups, of course. They were the first to offer help. Improvised clinics were set up along the roads. Some of the quake refugees were given tents, blankets, and food, while other large shipments are on their way. Yet for the time being there is no centralized power that directs all activity and there is no centralized address to turn to for help. People hear rumors through word-of-mouth and come to collect some gear. There is also no orderly record of casualties or missing residents.
What happened to Haiti could happen to dozens of other states of course, and we are not the last on the list. The obvious lesson is that we should prepare in earnest for the earthquake to come. The other lesson is to maintain a government system that is willing and able to serve as an address for the population at a time of emergency.
The residents of Port-au-Prince woke up to another earthquake Friday. This time it ended without any damage, yet the trauma was back. "I was standing at home for minutes while my body was shaking," the driver who took me to the center of town said. "I don't know what I'll be doing when the next quake comes."