The post-earthquake scene in Haiti

Stunning new post-quake video; aid workers struggle for access

Topics: Haiti, Paul Shirley, Natural Disasters, Aftershock, Earthquakes,

The post-earthquake scene in HaitiPeople search for survivors under the rubble of a collapse building the day after an earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010. The 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti on Tuesday flattened the president's palace, the cathedral, hospitals, schools, the main prison and whole neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo) (Credit: AP)

10:42 AM: A quick update on the status of direct American aid and intervention. The president announced today an initial commitment of $115 million in aid for Haiti. Meanwhile, the BBC reports that the U.S. will send a contingent of nearly 6,000 soldiers and marines to Haiti.

10:32 AM: President Obama has asked George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to lead fundraising efforts for relief for Haiti. It’s a similar move to made by Bush himself in 2004. After the massive Indian Ocean tsunami on his watch, the then-president asked his father, George H. W. Bush, as well as Clinton, to lead fundraising. Clinton is also already the UN special envoy for Haiti.

10:16 AM: Here’s another good video, this one from ABC earlier today. It won’t embed though, so you have to go to the ABC website. Notice the odd moment where Haitians seem to be fleeing a rumored flood or tsunami? This isn’t an isolated phenomenon, apparently. Richard Morse, who has been updating Twitter from Haiti, writes today, “There were a lot of ‘water rising’ rumors last night. I think it came from the previous day’s Tsunami warning”.

9:17 AM: Google Earth is working to update its images of Haiti to show the effects of the earthquake. The hope is apparently that up-to-date satellite photos of the situation might be of use to disaster relief efforts.

9:10 AM: Via CNN, we now have video of the scene in Haiti in the “first seconds” after the earthquake:


9:03 AM: As is pointed out today in the New York Times and elsewhere, even though aid workers have begun arriving in Haiti, it’s extremely hard for them to get around and do their job. In addition to the damaged airport, the roads were not in great shape to begin with. Now they’re blocked with rubble and homeless, despairing people.

8:56 AM: Lacking anywhere to bury their dead, many Haitians seem to be piling them up in public spaeces at the moment.

- – - – - – - – - -

7:10 PM: Due to the crisis, the FCC has announced it is waiving a rule prohibiting public broadcasters from online fundraising. Noncommercial broadcasters will be allowed to raise money for the Haitian cause.

6:12 PM: State Department states that there are alternate evacuation routes and that going to airport is not necessary.

6:11 PM: Bill Clinton: “It appears that an enormous percentage, maybe a third of the country have been adversely affected … we don’t know how many are dead yet.”

Clinton’s mantra is “get through the first two weeks.” He focuses on just delivering basic staple supplies above all else, and mentions that Paul Farmer (the Haiti-focused doctor who was the subject of Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains”) is among those desperately in need of such supplies.

5:48 PM: Two flights tomorrow will drop off American citizens in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. From there, embassy personnel will assist these evacuees. The prospective passengers will come to the airport with a promissory note — if the evacuees need an additional flight to the U.S., they will sign another note. One confounding issue: There are only 100 seats on each flight. CNN estimates that there are more willing evacuees than space on the planes.

5:09 PM: Haitian President Rene Preval claimed he had heard death toll estimates ranging from 30,000 to 100,000. The AP reports that some Haitian officials fear a toll larger than 100,000.  Despite the constant coverage, pegging a fatality estimate is difficult in the immediate wake of this disaster. People desperately want to know the scale of the tragedy, but its enormous scale hinders access to tangible figures.   

4:41 PM: President Obama is reported to be juggling Haiti and healthcare meetings today. All 172 U.S. workers at the American embassy have been accounted for.

4:40 PM: State Department Briefing: Americans will be transported out via the airport; no concrete figure on the number of Americans injured yet.

4:20 PM: U.S. Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph is speaking to Wolf Blitzer. In answering when aid aircrafts will arrive, Joseph states that they “can land in the airport,” and some already have.

4:08 PM: The U.S. Navy carrier USS Carl Vinson is headed toward Haiti.

3:31 PM: Exclusive: President Rene Preval tells CNN that Haiti lacks capacity to hospitalize quake victims, asks for medical aid.

3:00 PM: Rajiv Shah, head of USAID, just gave a conference.  CNN’s Jill Dougherty is stating that 45,000 Americans are currently in Haiti, but there are no reported deaths yet. 

2:10 PM: The Haitian Consul General to the UN, Felix Augustin, just spoke to reporters. He said that he is “very heartened” by the international response to the catastrophe, noting that 40 New York doctors are shipping out for Port-au-Prince, and various American airlines are offering jets to fly aid down to his country. One of the Haitians we’re watching on Twitter, Richard Morse, says he’s hearing helicopters overhead frequently now.

Still, it’s hard not to notice the difference in scale between the disaster’s effects and what aid groups are able to do. Those doctors are commendable, but how many people can 40 of them help? Likewise, the World Food Programme is sending hundreds of thousands of rations in the form of high-energy protein bars. Great news, but with 3 million people affected by the quake and the government literally shattered, the country is going to be depending on aid on a massive scale for a very long time.

1:51 PM: We have video of Pat Robertson blaming Haiti’s troubles on the country’s pact with the Devil. It hardly needs saying but, in addition to being racist and vicious, this account is also historically illiterate — even without the Satan mumbo-jumbo.


1:16 PM: Richard Morse, who is apparently updating Twitter from Haiti, reports that people have been sleeping in the streets because of ongoing tremors and fears of collapse. Take a look at these photos of Haitians spending the night outside, from journalist Liliane Pierre-Paul.

1:05 PM: CNN reports that a number of Doctors Without Borders staff members have died, and all of its treatment centers have been destroyed. The group is apparently relying on tents and mobile clinics. Over 100 UN employees are also apparently still unaccounted for, and at least 15 peacekeepers are dead.

1:01 PM: The National Cathedral has been destroyed, and the Vatican reports that the Archbishop of Haiti is dead. Along with the destruction of most of the physical apparatus of the Haitian government — prisons, police stations, hospitals, schools — this means that Haiti is going to have very few national institutions remaining to build on.

12:28 PM: Apparently, Rev. Pat Robertson declared, during his show on CBN, that the reason for Haiti’s troubles is the country’s pact with Satan. According to Robertson, Haiti struck a deal with the Devil to get free from France in the early 19th century. After Haitian slaves freed themselves and their country from France, this was approximately the view held by American slaveholders of the Haitian Revolution as well. Leave it to Robertson to be obscene — and, really, pretty racist — about an unspeakable tragedy.

12:26 PM: CNN reports that a helicopter evacuated four “very seriously injured” staffers from the U.S. embassy.

12:10 PM: Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive is currently on the phone with CNN, and just said that he believes that deaths could number in the hundreds of thousands.

12:07 PM: According to the UN, the main prison in Port-au-Prince has collasped, and an unknown number of inmates has escaped.

11:56 AM: General Douglas Fraser, of U.S. Southern Command tells reporters that the airport is damaged but functional. U.S. naval forces based on the East Coast, including the aircraft carrier Carl Vincent, are moving to Haiti to assist in the aid process.

11:54 AM: Apparently, a group of American and Jamaican seismologists predicted two years ago that a magnitude 7.2 earthquake would result if the strain along the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault in southern Haiti were released “in a single event,” and noted Haiti’s particular vulnerability to a massive quake. However, as with New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, simply knowing about the likelihood and potential danger of a natural disaster was insufficent for poor people lacking major institutional or governmental support.

11:36 AM: There was already a force of United Nations peacekeeping soldiers in Haiti before the earthquake — mainly Brazilians. These troops are moving to secure the airport and port of Port-au-Prince, as well as approaching roads, in order to keep the country accessible to international aid.

11:28 AM: Haiti’s First Lady, Elisabeth Preval, tells the Miami Herald, “I’m stepping over dead bodies. A lot of people are buried under buildings. The general hospital has collapsed. We need support. We need help. We need engineers.”

- – - – - – - – - -

The 7.0 earthquake that struck just off the coast of Haiti yesterday hit a country that was in bad enough shape already. The poorest nation in the western hemisphere, Haitians have suffered in recent decades through multiple coup d’etats and the breakdown of law and order, as well as poverty and hunger. Obviously, a 7.0 quake is bad news in general, but it’s especially so for people who live in shantytowns and can’t count on their government for relief or support. Says one charity worker, Rachmani Domersant, “The whole city is in darkness. You have thousands of people sitting in the streets with nowhere to go. There are people running, crying, screaming.”

A 7.0 on the Richter scale is slightly larger than the Loma Prieta earthquake that hit the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989. In addition to pure magnitude, distance matters to how damaging a quake will be, in two different ways: first, of course, its distance from human settlement. This was bad news for the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. The earthquake was centered just 10 miles southwest of the capital, although it was strong enough to be felt as far away as Cuba, 200 miles to the northwest. The second way that distance matters is in the distance of the earthquake from the surface. This one was shallow, at just five miles deep — a kind of earthquake known as “strike-slip” — and hence produced more violent shaking.  Hillside houses collapsed or went tumbling and, says Domersant, a car “was bouncing off the ground.” Following the main earthquake was a series of powerful aftershocks, with seismic activity continuing into today.

There is little way yet of estimating casualties or evaluating damage, other than to guess that the situation is grave. Says Paul Conneally, a spokesman for the International Red Cross, “There’s probably 3 million people potentially affected.”

Although basic residential structures in the slums are presumed to be devastated, the damage was not limited to outlying poor neighborhoods. Many solid buildings and government offices, including the United Nations mission and the presidential palace, sustained severe damage. The wrecked palace seems likely to become the representative image of the tragedy. (For a before-and-after comparison of the building, see here.)

Although the international community is mobilizing to send aid, it will not be easy at the outset to distribute food and medical care in a country whose infrastructure has taken such a beating. Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, says that a hospital ship is the country’s most pressing need.

With the power grid down and the airport badly damaged, information out of Haiti is limited. However, there are some ways to follow events. Blogger Troy Livesay appears to have already been in Haiti at the time of the quake, and to be writing from inside the country. Although few people are posting to Twitter from Haiti, many are linking to photos, videos and firsthand accounts using the Twitter hashtags #Haiti and #Help Haiti.

Several major news sources are running frequent updates, mainly gathered from what they can find out online from sources outside Haiti. You can follow updates from the BBC here, and from the New York Times on its Lede blog here.

This website appears to overlay reports of damage in and around Port-au-Prince onto a Google Map, although it has not yet been filled in with very much detail by local contributors.

For images of the disaster, see these slideshows from the BBC and MSNBC.

For video, you can see scenes of chaos and shock in the aftermath of the earthquake here. The New York Times Lede blog also points to these firsthand accounts of the earthquake from this Haitian DJ, and from passengers on a plane that took off from Haiti for Miami just after the quake struck.

For recommendations on how to help, see this Washington Post list of suggested charities.

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss writes about sports, culture and news for Tweet him @SherwoodStrauss or direct emails to

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