On January 12, 2010, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale struck the impoverished Caribbean nation of Haiti. It was the strongest quake in the region in 200 years. Its epicenter was in a heavily populated area, just sixteen miles west of the capital Port-au-Prince. The major quake was followed by two weeks of aftershocks, 52 of which were themselves of magnitude 4.5 or greater on the Richter scale.
Official figures from the Haitian government state that 230,000 people died in the quake, with another 300,000 injured. It’s estimated that a million people were left homeless, as 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings were destroyed or left uninhabitable.
As Haiti struggles to recover from the effects of the earthquake-a process that will take years in the best case scenario-it finds itself especially vulnerable to hurricanes, which could make a terrible situation even worse.
Unfortunately, Haiti lies right in a common path for tropical storms and hurricanes. 2008 was especially bad, with four storms-Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike-battering the nation and causing massive flooding. But that’s not the only year that saw Haiti dealing with killer storms. 2004’s Hurricane Jeanne killed over 3,000 people, and 1998’s Hurricane Georges destroyed 80% of the crops in the country, among many other examples.
But if a hurricane were to strike Haiti now, while it is still in recovery mode from the January 2010 earthquake, there is the potential that it could have worse consequences than any of these previous storms.
One reason is the lack of trees. Trees are a natural defense against hurricanes. Tree roots help to absorb excess rainwater into soil, and hold topsoil in place. The fewer trees, the easier it is for soil to erode and mudslides to occur.
Nearly 15,000 acres of topsoil is lost to the rains like that in Haiti each year, because Haiti has lost more than 98% of its natural forests, mostly due to the heavy reliance on wood as fuel in a country where most people are too poor to use oil.
This situation was exacerbated by the earthquake, because with resources stretched thinner than ever, even important tasks like planting more trees can be pushed down the list of priorities. The country has to focus on getting people enough food to keep them alive and at least tents to live in, even if that means less resources than ever can be devoted to planting trees, switching to alternative fuel sources, or constructing buildings able to withstand hurricane force winds.
Furthermore, as ill-prepared as many dwellings were for withstanding heavy storms and flooding, certainly that situation is even worse when people have no dwelling at all or are reduced to living in tents. With nowhere to “come in out of the rain,” people rendered homeless by the earthquake are more than ever at Nature’s mercy in the event of a major storm.
In addition, the makeshift tent cities and camps that were created in the aftermath of the quake were understandably rushed and followed a “take what you can get” approach. They were not carefully and thoughtfully chosen to minimize the impact of a subsequent hurricane. As a result, many of them are located in low lying areas, where flooding could cause massive loss of life.
A country as poor as Haiti is never in a good position to withstand a major natural disaster like a hurricane. But when it’s reeling from the body blow of a devastating earthquake, it is all the more vulnerable.
Jacqueline Charles, “Many Say Haiti Unprepared for Hurricane Season.” Miami Herald.
Jeffrey Masters, “Hurricanes and Haiti: A Tragic History.” Weather Underground.
Ann Posegate, “While Haiti Recovers, Hurricane Season Looms.” Washington Post.