Rebuilding a Livable City in Haiti
We were eating dinner in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when the earthquake struck at 4:53 p.m. As Californians, we knew the meaning of the pictures tumbling from the wall. We grabbed hands and ran outside. The building held, unlike countless others, and we were uninjured.
We spent the night and next day treating people's wounds in our host's courtyard and adjoining streets. We used what we had - soap, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, gauze pads, painkillers and splints made from wood and rags. We saw people pull others out of rubble, construct makeshift shelters and cooperate to secure necessities. Hundreds slept in the street, and sang throughout the dark nights.
We did not see Haitian police or U.N. forces direct traffic, provide supplies or perform any other useful function. We witnessed no violence.
The second afternoon, we piled into a vehicle to get to the American Embassy. On the way, we were caught in a huge traffic jam by a mobbed gas station. Civilians, all men, were yelling, directing vehicles to move an inch one way or the other. Haitian citizens unraveled the knot without a single scratch to a car or truck. We reached our destination and left by military transport.
Remember Loma Prieta in 1989? It had s 6.9 magnitude, compared with 7.0 in Haiti. Fifteen to 20 seconds, while the Port-Au-Prince quake lasted an endless 35 to 40. Loma Prieta's epicenter was about 40 miles from downtown San Francisco, and 11 miles deep. In Port-au-Prince, the epicenter was half as far, and only eight miles down. By the usual measurements, the Haiti quake was the worse of the two.
But what explains this contrast? Sixty-three deaths in Loma Prieta. At least 200,000 in Haiti, and still rising. Transpose Loma Prieta to a city with no consistent building standards, no effective primary health care, no reliable electricity, no system to deliver potable water to everyone and no emergency response system. That is Port-au-Prince.
An earthquake cannot be prevented, but this one was so deadly because of a failure of human will. The descendants of slaves, who built so much American wealth, live in wretched conditions due to economic exploitation and neglect.
I write this one week after the quake. Doctors Without Borders and other effective providers have been forced to take a time-consuming route through the Dominican Republic at the other side of Hispaniola Island. One Haitian friend has told us people wrote down her relatives' names but provided no help.
Why is this? "Security" trumps humanitarian assistance when people are stigmatized for being in need. Assessing that need can take precedence over meeting it. Port-au-Prince before the quake was the embodiment of de-funded government, privatization or nonexistent essential services, degradation of public space, and a people cheated out of democracy. The first popularly elected president in Haitian history, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, exiled with U.S. complicity, is to this day denied a passport to return to his own country.
This debacle, inconsistent with American values, must not be allowed to continue. We owe it to Haiti to rebuild a livable city, using Haitian labor paid a living wage. Otherwise we compound nature's injury with inexcusable malice and ineptitude.
© 2010 The San Francisco Chronicle