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Quake-Ravaged Countries Share Challenges, Lessons of Rebuilding
The Washington Diplomat / June 2011

By Larry Luxner

Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and Japan — four countries with little in common — are now united by the common experience of having been devastated by the worst earthquakes in their respective histories.

Yet while the Japan quake, tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis caused an estimated $325 billion in damages — making it the world’s most expensive natural disaster ever — the earthquakes that recently struck Haiti, Chile and New Zealand caused far more damage as a proportion of those countries’ relatively small economies.

In Haiti, the May 14 inauguration of a new president after months of political unrest has sparked hope that the desperately poor country will finally begin climbing out of the devastation caused by the magnitude-7.0 quake back in January 2010. That disaster claimed more than 230,000 lives, left some 1.5 million homeless and caused damages that actually exceeded the country’s meager GDP by at least $1 billion.

Haiti’s new president, Michel Martelly — a former pop singer and a newcomer to politics — promised tangible results during his first 100 days in office. That would be a refreshing change from his predecessor, René Préval, who was rarely seen in public after the quake and who never visited the squalid tent cities — including one right across from the destroyed presidential palace, where thousands of Haitians still struggle for survival.

Raymond Joseph, who served as Haiti’s ambassador before, during and for half a year after the earthquake until he resigned last August to run for president himself, says his government has failed miserably.

“During her recent meeting at the State Department with Martelly, Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton said that only 20 percent of the rubble had been disposed of since the quake,” Joseph told The Diplomat in a phone interview from Port-au-Prince, where he’s negotiating for some sort of official position with the new government.

“If 15 months later, only 20 percent of the rubble has been removed, this is a failure. If you come to Haiti now, you’ll see tent cities that appear to be permanent. The people here are so angry. Préval has been absent from Day One and continues to be absent. That’s why in the last election they voted overwhelmingly against his party.”

Joseph said he’s seeing some signs of rebirth and houses being built here and there, “but this has all been done by the NGOs,” he complained. “I have not seen any plan of action by the government.”

In the months following the earthquake, Joseph said, he became so disillusioned with Préval and finally decided to quit his job in August.

“I have challenged the regime since then and have exposed whatever corruption I saw, especially in customs. After the earthquake, I had a lot of NGOs that wanted to help Haiti, but their products and equipment were kept at customs warehouses where officials were asking for money under the table. That was one of the reasons I resigned.”

Edmond Mulet, chief of MINUSTAH — the United Nations Stabilization Force in Haiti — agrees that corruption is endemic, but disagrees that no progress has been made in cleanup efforts since the quake.

“It’s really amazing. You don’t see any rubble in the main arteries anymore,” said Mulet, who oversees a force of 15,000 peacekeepers and a $793 million annual budget. “All schools have been cleared of rubble and UNICEF has been able to set up temporary structures. More people are cleaning up their own pieces of land, though it’s mainly been a private-sector effort.”

The problem is that the crippled Haitian government isn’t yet capable of keeping the streets safe, let alone financing an entire army.

“Right now, they don’t even pay their policemen,” Mulet lamented. “There’s corruption among the police, there’s corruption in customs, there’s corruption at all levels. One of the things the new government must focus on is confronting this corruption, to stop with this culture of impunity in Haiti and investigate whoever is involved.”

Eventually, the idea is to phase out the MINUSTAH presence and replace it with Haitian military and police institutions. But that could take a long time, given the current political and economic catastrophe.

“MINUSTAH has been on the ground here for seven years, so we would now like to downsize,” said Mulet, a veteran Guatemalan diplomat whose assignment in Haiti ends in June. “Our role has changed dramatically, from guaranteeing safety and security to humanitarian assistance, then the delivery of food and water, then the cholera outbreak. And during the election, we played a very important role with logistical support. Now we need to work with the new government.”

Adds Joseph: “Martelly speaks about having a Haitian national police force. I’m for that. But we cannot be depending on MINUSTAH for the rest of our lives.”

Only a month and a half after the Haiti quake, disaster struck Chile in the form of a massive earthquake centered just a few miles of Chile’s Pacific coast southwest of Santiago. At 8.8 on the Richter scale, the Feb. 27 quake was the world’s sixth largest ever to be recorded by a seismograph (the strongest was the 1960 Valdivia quake, also in Chile, which measured 9.5 on the Richter scale).

The 2010 disaster killed 562 people and caused $30 billion in damage, which is equivalent to 18 percent of the country’s GDP. More specifically, it damaged or destroyed 370,000 homes, 200 bridges, 4,000 schools and nearly 100 hospitals.

Arturo Fermandois, Chile’s ambassador to the United States, said that looking back, it’s clear his country wasn’t really prepared for the disaster.

“Although we were very successful in facing the immediate consequences of the earthquake, our most urgent problem was that we didn’t have an emergency task force prepared for going to the damaged areas and working efficiently under one chain of command,” he told The Diplomat.

“We used the military, civil volunteers and government officials, for example, but we didn’t have a specific group of people prepared to go the very same day,” Fermandois conceded. “We also didn’t have a sufficient system of communications for receiving information about the tsunami, nor did we have an efficient way to communicate that a tsunami was coming through radio, cellphones, sirens and TV.”

Following harsh criticism that it ignored warnings sent by the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center — which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people — Chile’s National Office of Emergency of the Interior Ministry (known by its Spanish acronym ONEMI) was completely revamped to improve its effectiveness.

“The most important lesson was that we needed to improve the chain of command and have one place where decisions are taken,” said Fermandois. “There were too many people providing information to different officials. We had different ministers, the director of ONEMI, the minister of interior, the minister of defense and the president involved, but we didn’t have one war room with a few people taking decisions and receiving information from a reliable, single source. It was an organizational mistake. That’s since been corrected.”

ONEMI has also received help from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, which itself came under heavy criticism following its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“We didn’t copy the FEMA system, but did get some help and suggestions on how to fight disasters. There’s been close cooperation between the U.S. and Chile on this,” said the ambassador, adding that “for practical purposes, we need to act like the chances of having another earthquake are very high.”

In New Zealand, people are still on edge after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake devastated Christchurch, the country’s second-largest city, earlier this year. The Feb. 22 killed 181 people and caused upwards of $12 billion in damage, said New Zealand’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Moore.

“If you talk of Hurricane Katrina costing the U.S. economy 1 percent of GDP, then this earthquake cost us between 6 and 9 percent of GDP,” he said. “In economic terms, this is like the U.S. losing Detroit, Chicago, Miami and Houston.”

Moore, a former prime minister of New Zealand, said a U.S.-New Zealand Partnership meeting was under way in Christchurch — the country’s second-largest city — when the quake hit, unnerving several visiting American officials.

“The first quake in September was bigger than Haiti’s, but nobody got hurt. Then we had 3,000 smaller quakes and then the big one hit — and that’s when the city fell over,” he said.

Although smaller in magnitude than the 2010 quake that struck the Canterbury region, the later quake was far more devastating, leading Prime Minister John Key to state that Feb. 22 “may well be New Zealand’s darkest day.” It was much closer to Christchurch than the previous quake and shallower at five kilometers underground, whereas the September quake was 10 kilometers deep.

In addition, the later quake occurred on a weekly during lunchtime when Christchurch’s central business district was packed, causing many fatalities. More than half of those who died were foreign tourists and students at a language school, including 20 Japanese students.

In a particularly tragic twist, said Moore, one Japanese student survived the Christchurch quake as her dormitory collapsed around her — only to learn later on that her parents had been killed in the magnitude-9.0 quake that devastated northern Japan.

“Downtown Christchurch is completely demolished. We will rebuild the city, but we’re still thinking this through,” he said, noting that the most important landmarks of Christchurch — including the city’s cathedral and basilica — are gone. “We have high standards like the Japanese, but this was an unusual quake.”

Moore said he’s been struck by the generosity of ordinary people and the business community. Employees of the New Zealand Embassy raised $10,000 for quake relief, then later conducted an auction for Japanese quake victims. Several U.S. companies have donated $1 million each, said the ambassador, “but what’s more touching is the person who sends us $50 with a shaky, handwritten letter, or some school you never heard of that sends us a couple of thousand dollars.”

In a way, New Zealanders were lucky because the country has compulsory re-insurance and a compulsory levy on home insurance policies.

“That goes to an Earthquake and War Damage Commission. The money is invested offshore and reinsured through big re-insurance companies, so a major part of the damages will be covered. This happens all the time. If you live in Florida, you expect hurricanes, and earthquakes are a part of living in New Zealand.”

Even so, the country of four million inhabitants — which enjoys one of the world’s highest standards of living — has already begun feeling the economic jolt caused by the earthquake.

“We’ll have to borrow, and we’ll have to work harder. There’s a big debate whether to impose a special tax,” said Moore. “A tax is good but it’ll stunt growth. That’s a political decision.”

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