Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Unnatural Disasters.

Haiti, widely seen as a leading contestant on the reality show "World's Most Utterly Hosed Polity", got slammed by an M7.0 earthquake yesterday.

To put this in perspective, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 - also on a major branch of a strike-slip fault, also in the vicinity of a major city, has been estimated anywhere between 7.5 and 8.25. This was a big earthquake, but not a HUGE earthquake.We think of the Caribbean as being worked over by hurricanes, not earthquakes, but the tectonics of the region are nearly as nasty as southern California, and the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault system, the projected source of the movement, moves about 7 mm/year, "half the overall motion between the Caribbean plate and North America plate" according to the U.S. Geological Survey.Again, to give you perspective, the slip rate on the San Andreas Fault Zone is roughly 25mm to 30mm/year.One thing to think about, though, is that we're going to hear a lot about this as a "natural disaster". But earthquakes have been happening since tectonics first began some time about 4.3 billion years ago. Unless you were spectacularly unlucky, if you lived in a wickiup and hunted or gathered your food, you probably lived through big earthquakes.

But a couple tens of thousands of years ago we began building ourselves permanent houses. Those houses were fairly ramshackle things, and when the ground shook, even moderately, they fell down on us and killed us. As in the Libyan fable, by our own feathers, and not by others' shafts, are we now striken.

We're going to hear a lot of hand-wringing about how awful a "natural disaster" this is. There'll be the usual assistance, the normal pantsload of helicopters, doctors and Red Cross volunteers. But call me a nasty, cynical son-of-a-bitch, but what we WON'T see is what Haiti needed and needs.The last big strike-slip earthquake in the U.S. was Loma Prieta, 1989. Another M7.0, almost exactly the same as this one. Total of 63 dead, some four thousand injured. Lots of homes damaged.

I'll bet that the death toll in Port au Prince will be at LEAST in the low hundreds, probably in the low thousands, possibly even in the tens of thousands...with thousands more maimed or damaged in some way. In a quake almost exactly like the 1989 San Francisco event that killed sixty-fricking-three. Why?I'll tell you why. We have a pretty good idea how to design and build things to resist much earthquake shaking. In an M8+ all bets are off, sure, but for most quakes, we can design buildings and communities to get most people through the shaking alive.

But this takes money. And the political insistence to enforce building codes. And those two things are things that Haiti has in very, very short supply. So today, as always, many Haitians are dead who need not have died.

Because in Haiti, as in much of the world, lives are cheaper than structural steel and people are more disposable than dimension lumber.

Sympathy, donations and talk are cheap. Soldiers come and go. Changing the way the places like Haiti function is hellishly hard, and it seems pretty hypocritical to me to talk today about our sorrow for the victims of this while we were perfectly happy to ignore them before the first temblor because it would have required us to give a shit and do something about their crappy "government" and impoverished existence.

So this is an UNnatural disaster. Earthquakes don't kill people - people kill people. Or, to be precise, the buildings we don't build to a standard of practice kill people. Lack of building codes kill people. Governments kill people.We can regret this. We can grieve about it. But until and unless we - and, more specifically, the Haitian ruling classes - are willing to commit large amounts of our money, political will and time to reorder the way people build, work and live in Haiti, we cannot change it.

(Cross-posted from GFT)


  1. Jared Diamond does an excellent job in his book, Collapse, of highlighting Haiti as the textbook laboratory example of what happens when you don't protect the environment and strike a balance.

    On one side of the island is Haiti, with land where the government did nothing to stop the raping of the forests, and when all the trees were gone, the topsoil eroded away leaving nothing. Lots of money could be committed, but I am not sure there is anything left on the island to work with, unless you kick out all the people and start over. On the other side of the island, the Dominica side, the government conserved forests with national parks and maintained a balance and they are doing well under essentially the same environmental conditions.

    I wonder how much of this analogy also played into the impact of this disaster.

  2. bg: This mess made me think of the hubris of our current adventures in central Asia.

    Here's a tiny little state, practically in our backyard. We've been engaged there since our own revolution and occupied the place for almost 20 years. There is no war going on, and the level of domestic violence, while extreme for most of the rest of the Caribbean, is certainly no worse than Detroit or Baltimore.

    And yet here they are, less than ten years after we ousted Aristide and U.S. Marines again walked the streets of Port au Prince, with the damn place a shambles. All the blood and treasure hasn't helped the place move forward so much as an inch. For all it's ugly beginnings, in the late 19th Century Haiti actually looked like it had some hopes.

    The deforestation wasn't some haphazard rapine. It was the result of a combination of dispossed poor with nothing to lose, care-nothing rich with little to gain, a hopeless government without honesty or equality, and not a little bit of foreign indifference and rapacity.

    And I see little hope that this will change. Like I said, we'll go in, feed some people, bury the dead, throw up some surplus tentage, and leave. The political, economic and social reasons that developed the dysfunctional government will remain in place, the shoddy deathtraps will rise again, and the Haitians will move into them to breed new corpses for the next big EQ.

    And then you look around an realize...this is how a huge hell of a lot of the world lives.

    It's almost enough to make you despair for a large portion of the human race.

  3. Great post Chief, thanks.

  4. What strikes me is how much worse what we've done to Iraq is than what just happened to Haiti.

    And maybe things have reached the point where we should just offer to annex Haiti as a commonwealth like Puerto Rico.

  5. Personally, I cut these poor bastards some slack. They are desperately poor and I doubt whether anything the people can afford to build would pass the most lenient of US building codes.

    I was going to mention the information in Diamond's "Collapse," about why Haiti is in its present shape but bg beat me to it. (That book would be of great interest to the milpub readership, if only for it's analysis of where we can expect the US to consider military intervention in the near future.)

    Thing is, the US shouldn't be pointing fingers about lax earthquake preparation. The SF earthquake happened only 100 years ago and thus was in "living memory" when such building codes began to be introduced, while the last Haitian earthquake was 300 years ago. But the New Madrid earthquake was 200 years ago (1811) and Missouri has not adopted state-wide building codes.

    Now, as the Chief says, an M8+ earthquake means are all bets are off, and the New Madrid earthquake was M8.3. Actually, earthquakes plural -- they had three M8+ earthquakes in the course of two months! But even if codes protecting against such a 2500-year earthquake are too expensive (they probably are), they should be building for a 500-year earthquake of lesser magnitude.

    What people need and what they can get are two different things. I'm sure people in hell want ice water.



  6. Charles: I'd agree except for we did that once, from 1915 to 1934, and the mess we left behind has poisoned the well for us, I think. Read any history of Haiti and you end up gobsmacked. The notion of an American occupation doesn't seem all that crazy to begin with - as you point out, it's worked out fairly OK for PR and the USVI. But then you read how almost the first thing we did back in the teens was...

    ...impose fucking Jim Crow laws.

    On a country founded and mostly populated by the decendants of African slaves.


    And before we left we helped impose the noxious Duvaliers. Since then we've helped the Haitians into one fuckup after another, culminating six years ago in a U.S.-assisted (or possibly even arranged) "soft coup" that deposed that turbulent priest Aristide.


    I mean, this is about as simple as meddling with a foreign polity gets. Find a local proxy. Make sure that you DON'T treat the locals like slaves (Jim Crow - what were we THINKING?). Ensure that most of the faces you put in place to help the reulers are black. Keep your thumb on the local elites and make sure the vast majority of the poor SEE that. Ensure fair land use, do job creation, protect the soil and, if you have to, throw massive farm subsidies to keep the farmers in business. This is a tiny little frigging island - the total cost would probably be less than floating a carrier air group for a year.

    If you're a Great Power and you can't get Haiti right, what the fuck CAN you get right? Haiti is tic-tac-toe compared to the chess that is Iraq and the goddam Rubik's Cube that is Afghanistan.

    Maybe we're just not cut out to be good imperials. It's not that we lack the will - some of us, anyway - but, Christ, you look at how we've fucked up Haiti and we look like Pinky without the Brain.

  7. JD: Here's the thing about EQ.

    I love earthquakes in that they generate a huge amount of work for me. But EQ engineering is EXPENSIVE. That's why, as you point out, they don't do it in Haiti, where lives are cheap and rebar is expensive.

    The best information we have suggests that the recurrence interval on teh NMSZ are pretty huge. The Missouri geological survey website says "Currently, paleoseismologists infer two or more large earthquakes (magnitude 7 or larger) have occurred in the last 2,000 years or less giving recurrence interval estimates of 300 to 1,000 years for the large quakes." A thousand-year recurrence interval is enormous, unthinkable. The commonly predicted useable-life of a typical commercial building is less than 200 years, a residence less than 100.

    To build everything in St. Louis to a California-grade (Zone IV) seismic standard would not be financially sensible. The chances of the building burning down or getting tornadoes are 2x-3x the chance of an EQ. Better to spend your money on improved fireproofing or wind loads than seismicity.

    But - here's the thing - let's say that the good people of St. Louis decided that another New Madrid quake WAS scary enough to make seismic design for public buildings worthwhile.

    St. Louis has enough money to afford that. The city council has the expertise and honesty to debate it and enact the rules into the city code. The buildings and plans department has the inspectors to enforce it and the City Attorney has the muscle to prosecute violators. Will it work perfectly? Of course not; there will be payoffs and graft and the usual bullshit.

    But NOT on a Haitian scale.

    So the reason that the Midwest doesn't design for EQ is not that we're Haiti, it's because of a rational risk-management decision. You can argue with the rationale, but I don't think you can use it to make the argument that U.S. building codes = Haitian building codes.

    Yes, they're desperately poor. Yes, poor people in poor countries die in proportionately huge numbers in events like earthquakes, floods, famines, etc. \

    But bad governance doesn't help. Haiti can't do much about being too poor, too overpopulated, too agriculturally-dependent. But it can do something about the fairness and justice of it's land tenure and judicial systems, it can do something about it's larcenous and irresponsible ruling class, it can do something about its disconnect between the people and the government.

    The thing is, Haiti was on track to become more like Puerto Rico or the DomRep in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Yes, it's never been very stable; yes, the legacy of French fuckups and Haitian bloodymindedness has been toxic. But the Domingue and Salomon governments did well in the thirty years between 1880 and 1910.

    A series of revolutions and occupation put an end to that, and since then it's been ugly.

    Ther's no good guys here. The colonial past fucked it up, the Haitians themselves fucked it up, we helped fuck it up. Haiti is just fucked, and to unfuck it would take a hell of a lot of time, money and effort from everyone invloved AND a massive realignment of a lot of Haitians' brain housing groups.

    I'm not going to buy Haitian government bonds hoping for that to happen...

  8. FDC,

    Ya, I know the history, but that was then, and this is now. I mean give them the same deal PR has, including US citizenship and an option on statehood at some point.

  9. Here are some incredible images brought to us by our friends at google.

    From a purely economist standpoint, it looks like one hell of a job creation event and less people to do the jobs. There will be lots of it for many, many years. They might as well bulldoze most of Port au Prince and just start over. Just being the optimist here, but perhaps the message for the government of Haiti is a New Beginning, literally. Clean up the old city and build a new one, this time build on a stronger foundation (in more ways than one).

    This brings up an ethical/moral question for the gallery, what do you do when the land can no longer support the sheer volume of people such as Haiti? Nature has a way of setting things back into balance (and sometimes man does so through genocide, or deportations), but in what legal/moral/ethical ways can a government reduce a population in order to return balance with what the environment can safely and comfortably handle?

    The only method that I can think of initially is economic incentives for reducing the size of families, which a free market tends to do on its own, and handing out birth control for free.

  10. Haiti has a large diaspora.

    Haitian Canadians ship massive quantities of money back to Haiti. (over $500M/year from Montreal). Our Governer General was born in Haiti. The diaspora is, in general, very careful about how and where they spend their money.

    I don't know if there is a large Haitian diaspora in the USA as well.

    If the great powers don't mess it up, I can see that Haiti might drag itself out of the dust and darkness. It will, however, take decades.

    The West could help them, but I'd be satisfied if we simply didn't fuck em over again.

  11. bg: One of the huge and unplumbed questions behind wars and rumors of wars is "How many people can/should live here?" It deserves a full post, but the real tradeoff is controlling population versus a critical shortage of expendable military-age bodies. Nations that reduce their fertility, either voluntarily or through excess deaths such as this disaster, risk being literally over-run by a demographically younger nation.

    But...the biological reality is that no organism or population grows unchecked healthily. There must be some control...except through a combination of improvements in agriculture, technology and public health, we as a species have nanaged to evade most of the "traditional" natural controls.

    So ISTM that we either figure out a way to limit our population, or Nature will figure out a way for us. And the latter will probably not be pretty.

  12. Charles: I'd be all over it, but good luck convincing the 27-percenters to take in an entire island of 9 million people of African descent.

    Hell, they were ready to drown New Orleans, and that had been American since 1805...

  13. FDC,

    Did you catch what their ambassador said the other day?

    Some Republican had made some idiotic condescending remark, so he pointed out the only reason we got Louisiana was that Haiti defeated the army Napoleon sent to secure his colonies.

  14. Chief,

    I think it would be more than the 27 percenters that would oppose and that's even assuming Haitians want to be annexed by the US.

  15. Charles: I did, and while it was a nifty put-down, there was more to the Purchase than that.

    Andy: My guess would be that the most rabid opposition would come from the same people that gave us "death panels" and "Barack the Magic Negro". Just guessin', mind you. Some of the best friends our Oregon GOP has, wait. Actually, they aren't.

    Mind you, if the Party of The Bestest Best Friends that the Wealthy Ever Had (Now with less Death Tax!) find out that Haiti has one of the greatest income disparities between well-off and impoverished in the Western Hemisphere, with one percent of Haitians owning half the nation's wealth, they may want to grab the thing to provide a living example of what a good thing such an immense concentration of wealth is for less-imaginative Americans and Evil Libruls such as myself.

    As far as what the Haitians want, I'm guessing that "food and water" pretty much summarize it right now, with political issues off the radar.

    In all honesty, I wouldn't want the place - I think it's too fucked for us to change. But Charles' point is, I think, that almost anything would be better than what they have now.

  16. FDChief-

    Great post and very informative. We were talking about the points you brought up at lunch today.

    A bit of history . . .

  17. It has been quite a 12 month period for twitter and facebook between the Iran protests and now this. People rescued because of their facebook postings.

    So we've granted Haitians temporary immunity from deportation, which makes sense. Where in the hell are you going to send them? But the temporary protective status won't allow Haitians stranded in the US to work??? WTF are they supposed to do? It is almost like saying, "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here." Is this short sighted or intentional (i.e. political)?

  18. Also interesting to see how some are trying to politicize this event by saying, "See how much faster Obama responded to this emergency, compared to how slow Bush responded to New Orleans, which was in our own country".

    A silly comparison for many reasons. But to fully understand how catastrophic this event was to that country, instead we should compare it to what would happen to our country if/when Yellow Stone erupts. That will be a bad day.

  19. bg: I'm never surprised by anything nonsensical we do re: Haitians. Our history with the place (see Charles' link above) is fairly disreputable, and that;s even given the sad legacy of meddling we've piled up in Central America.

    And the reality is that the inside-the-Beltway zoo has developed an unsatiable taste for their own flesh. It's all about the politics, including when the politics is related to genuine real-world emergencies and crises. The probability that both sides would spin the Obama Administration's response to this approached unity a long, long time ago.

    That said, Bush's record stand alone for incompetence. To compare this to his reaction to the warnings he got before 9/11, Katrina, Iraq...there's nothing there blocking his view of the bottom except, perhaps for Buchanan's conduct between Sumpter and Lincoln's inauguration.

  20. seydlitz:

    Helena Hill Weed was a heroine for my maternal grandmother for her work in the suffragette movement in this country. And for myself I certainly salute her for giving my Mom, sisters, wife, daughters and granddaughters the right to vote. However, I will have to risk angering Grandma.

    Ms Weed may have had a grain of truth in that article especially concerning the venality of American banks with regard to Haiti. But when she speaks of Cacos freedom fighters did Ms Weed ever set foot in Haiti and meet one? Or was she just pushing what she heard from people with an agenda?

    The Cacos were in fact rural bandits typically led by voodooo priests. Yes, they sometimes signed up to fight for a political cause, but only for pay or the promise of booty. To my untutored military mind they were the reason that the occupation lasted 19 years.

    Speaking of military occupations, Haiti invaded their neighbor on the island, the present day Dominican Republic, twice. One of those invasions ended up with a 22-year occupation and brutal miltary rule, which murdered thousands, outlawed the use of the Spanish language and shut down the oldest university in the Americas.

    I agree that Spain, France, Germany and America may all bare some historical guilt for the disaster that is called République d'Haiti. But there is blame enough to go around elsewhere too. I also accuse Haiti's founding father, Touissaint Louverture, their George Washington. After the slave revolt was over he turned against Haiti's free men of color and executed (massacred) tens of thousands of them. And then unlike GW, he declared himself president-for-life like Sukarno, Tito, Papa Doc, Idi Amin and Stalin.

    Don't forget to place some blame on those free men of color also. They rebounded, prospered, and got their revenge by imposing a pigmentocracy on Haiti that defined 128 different skin tints and kept the blackest among them poor, hungry and uneducated.

    And perhaps the Kingdom of Dahomey had something to do with the situation since they bequeathed to the Haitians the wonderful gift of Vodou. They also kidnapped and sold most of the Haitians' ancestors into slavery. But perhaps that was for the best, as the Dahomean kings usually used their kidnap victims as human sacrifices - 500 or 1000 at a time - and only sold them into slavery in order to get guns and ammo to body snatch more victims.