Earthquake Strikes Haiti on Jan. 13, 2010; Thousands Feared Dead

It is another fairly quiet night here in Van Nuys, California. There will be some calls for police, paramedics or firemen. But none of them will have the overwhelming magnitude that hit the tiny nation of Haiti, on the west end of Hispaniola just over 24 hours ago. There is hardly any mention of this news on any of the social networks. Of my 600+ friends, only a handful have made but oblique references. Only one of them was serious. One wonders if people are just in denial about any other disaster other than theirs. Yet, when floods hit the Philippines, or when earthquakes hit California, all of Facebook is ablaze with news, as if we need to be reminded any more. We are so quick to forget about disasters when they hit someone else. When it hits us, we expect the whole world to sympathize with us.

We aren’t special; neither is anyone, for that matter. Disasters like these happen every year. Two years ago, an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 struck Sichuan Province in the Republic of China. Its death toll was a staggering 68,000 people, the worst disaster thus far in the modern age. The official figures for the Haiti earthquake aren’t out yet, but it’s expected that tens of thousands will have perished. However, no one is keeping score, and no one should. This isn’t a contest of numbers to find which one was worse than the other; all earthquakes are equally bad and horrifying. Even our 6.7- Magnitude Northridge Earthquake was devastating in its own way.

What makes this disaster visibly and humanly moving is the amount of human suffering and grief that has resulted because of it. Death is only the beginning. The aftermath is just as harrowing, with the aftershocks, the outbreak of disease, looting and lawlessness compounding the misery. When I talked to my Partner tonight, she was very much saddened after seeing visceral images of bodies strewn all over the city, the walking wounded, and the entire city in ruins, literally overnight. The epicenter of the 7.0-Earth- quake was a few miles away from Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti with a population of about 4 million. The presidential palace was flattened, as were most government buildings in the capital.

Certain places like Northridge or Sichuan Province happen to be located in large and economically-powerful countries. When all else fails, they can rely on their patron government’s infrastructure to provide relief. However, Haiti is a small country with 9.8 million, a shade less than Metropolitan Los Angeles. A disaster right in the capital city of a comparatively small country means that its infrastructure is effectively crippled.  Emergency and relief efforts are well underway, but they aren’t moving fast enough, to save the dying and comfort the living. It isn’t for lack of trying: The capital city’s only functioning airport has been reported to be in such poor shape and with no air traffic control, that only one aircraft at a time can land and unload supplies. The streets are littered with rubble and dead bodies, that even the Prime Minister himself mentioned that he and his family had to step over the bodies just to make it through. Along the way, you will see endless images of suffering children, crying, singing hymns, doing whatever it takes to get succor. Because it doesn’t come quickly enough.  There is a general feeling of helplessness that we can all relate with, that we in our cozy lives awkwardly stay silent about.

About five years ago, another natural disaster struck, one that was too big too ignore. In 2004, a tsunami with its epicenter in the Indian Ocean swept along the coastlines of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand and took the lives of about 230,000. For those of us who live in strong, sturdy homes, in a country where our networks are large and technologically sophisticated, we have to be continually reminded of how lucky we truly are.  It’s easy to glaze over a news ticker that shows us a figure, a number, that doesn’t say anything other than the cost in lives. Bring the sight, the stench, the awful day-to-day living conditions of several thousand lives living in abject squalor, in rude shelters that could not withstand a well-placed blow from a small car, let alone an earthquake – that is harder for most of us to take.

That is what makes this event all the more moving, now as back then in 2004, and every single disaster before and since. We are so lucky, to live in a society that’s efficient and democratic enough to permit the blessings of capitalism and free trade, that allow us to enjoy, among other things, good food (not just food), clothing, and shelter that can withstand most disasters. On top of that, we have access to mobile phones, computers and other electronic devices that enable us to communicate our whereabouts to our loved ones.

People in Haiti and other impoverished countries aren’t as fortunate. A lucky few might have cell phones, and that’s the extent of whatever decent tech- nology there is. The buildings are old and decrepit, and waiting for a new disaster, if one hasn’t already occured. Roads are poorly-maintained. Haiti itself has gone through numerous coups and military takeovers. The uneasy peace these people enjoy only prolongs their abject poverty. Since corruption is so rampant, very few of the nation’s wealth ever trickles past 5% of the entire population, or down to the country’s infrastructure.  A natural disaster is a very sharp agonizing reminder to a nation already well below the poverty line, of how it can be literally crushed under its own weight. And that is what truly saddens us, not just the death toll per se.

As with any country that suffers, Haiti will eventually recover; but unlike any city in the US or China, it will be much slower. Other than do what little we can, all we can really do is to observe and be spectators, as we always have. There’s no need to moralize and stay smug in our sanctity; for if there is a God, He or She may throw at us our own version of apocalypse, for good measure (must I remind you all of 9/11?). This is not a call to action or an admonishment, merely a thought for the future, to remind those of us who are so fortunate, that we would do well to reflect upon and appreciate. Because we, as humans, always have to be reminded of our mortality.

Copyright Anabasius 2010

Photo Credits from the Following Sites:

Haiti Earthquake in Pictures

Haiti Population GRAPHIC Shows Impact of Earthquake

Major Earthquake Hits Haiti: A Washington Image Gallery

RocketBoom on YouTube: Haiti Earthquake

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