On Tuesday, January 12, 2010, at 4:53 pm local time, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the Caribbean nation of Haiti. The earthquake was centered approximately 25 kilometers west-southwest of Port-au-Prince, at a depth of approximately 13 kilometers. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) recorded 59 aftershocks of magnitude 4.5 or greater in the 43 days following the initial tremor. The earthquake was felt as far away as The Bahamas, Puerto Rico, southern Florida, northern Columbia, and Northern Venezuela.
Official government estimates include over 225,000 people killed as a direct result of the quake, 300,000 injured, and almost 1.5 million left homeless. Port-au-Prince and other settlements in the region, including Jacmel, Petit-Goâve, and Léogâne, suffered widespread damage and destruction. The majority of residential and commercial buildings, air and sea port facilities, as well as communication and transportation networks were severely impacted. Many of the nation's schools, universities, museums, and churches were also damaged or destroyed.
Haiti, along with its neighbor to the east, the Dominican Republic, occupies the island of Hispaniola, located in the Caribbean Sea. Originally inhabited by native Taíno Amerindians, Spanish settlers took over the island following its discovery by Columbus in 1492. In 1697, Spain ceded control of the western third of the island to the French, who built Haiti into one of the wealthiest nations in the Caribbean, relying heavily on slave labor imported from Africa. Toward the end of the 18th century, however, half a million slaves revolted, thus gaining their independence and making Haiti the first black republic in 1804.
Following decades of political violence and corruption, the nation of Haiti remains one of the poorest nations in the world, and among the most vulnerable to natural disasters. Hurricanes are a common threat to the tiny nation. Rains brought by these storms cause widespread flooding; the vast majority of Haiti's forests have been harvested for fuel, leaving its mostly mountainous terrain vulnerable to erosion and mudslides. In a country as poor as this, there are few resources to cope with natural disasters. Disease and starvation continue to claim lives long after the initial devastation has occurred. Between 2004 and 2008, hurricanes accounted for more than four thousand deaths and left millions homeless or dislocated. Lack of potable water, food and waterborne diseases, and more recently, the spread of AIDS represent ongoing threats to the population of Haiti.
Running through the southern peninsula of Haiti lies the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault, an east-west strike-slip fault, and one of several fault zones that surround the Gonâve Microplate, which separates the North American Plate and the Caribbean Plate. (The earth's crust is made up of several major and minor tectonic plates, the motion of which is driven by heat from the earth's mantle.) Scientists have determined that the January 12th quake was caused by a rupture in the Enriquillo fault, within the boundaries of the Caribbean and North American plates. Other major quakes have been associated with this fault system—two of them, in 1751 and 1770, destroyed the capitol city; the last major quake to hit the region occurred in 1860.
The USGS PAGER* summary for the Haiti region on January 12th estimated that over 2.3 million people had been exposed to violent tremor activity. Structural damage was also predicted to be very heavy in cities and villages close the quake's origin. Most of the buildings in and around Port-au-Prince, as well as in some rural areas, were constructed of concrete masonry or block. Similar materials were used in floors and roofs for most multi-story buildings. Observers from the USGS Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) observed that most of the residential and commercial buildings damaged during the quake were concrete structures, many without adequate reinforcements needed to resist the seismic forces dealt by the earthquake. The weight of these structures also appeared to be a factor; most of the intact buildings left behind were of lighter wood or metal construction.
As is often the case during a severe earthquake, most of the casualties were the result of people being crushed or trapped inside buildings that collapsed in the moments following the first tremors. The bulk of the casualties were Haitian citizens, but there were a significant number of foreign embassy and United Nations staff, aid workers, and tourists among the casualties. As many as 200 guests at the famous Hotel Montana, in Port-au-Prince, were killed or presumed dead; the collapse of the Presidential Palace resulted in the loss of several high ranking government officials. The nation's communications and transportation infrastructure was severely damaged. Cell phone coverage was all but knocked out, roads were impassible, harbor and marine port facilities destroyed, and control of the only major airport in the region had to be handed over to controllers from the United States, who were better able to manage air traffic into and out of the facility.
Aftermath and Response
In the first hours following the quake, medical facilities, or what was left of them, were quickly overwhelmed with injured and dying patients. The morgue in Port-au-Prince was filled, and thousands of bodies were left lining the city's streets. Tens of thousands remained trapped, injured and dying, under the rubble. Those who survived slept on the streets and in makeshift camps, afraid to re-enter their homes for fear they would eventually collapse.
Military units and humanitarian agencies were among the first to provide support and relief. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) quickly set up operations in two of the capital city's damaged hospitals; International Red Cross also began to fly in food and water, as well as trained specialists in search and rescue, disaster response, and family services. Members of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne were quickly deployed to the island to help distribute food and assist other aid organizations with their missions. Just over a week following the quake, the U.S. Navy's hospital ship USNS Comfort arrived in Port-au-Prince Harbor to serve as a field hospital for quake victims.
In the weeks following the disaster, both government and non-government organizations had raised hundreds of millions of dollars to finance relief efforts in Haiti. Roughly half the money raised would go to buy food, water, and other relief supplies. Organizations such as the American Red Cross and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) would also focus their efforts on providing labor and materials needed to construct shelter for the nearly one-million left homeless and living in refugee camps around the city.
By early April, countries around the world, working through the United Nations, had pledged nearly 10 billion dollars in both short and long term aid to Haiti. According to the U.N., damage and losses caused by the January 12 earthquake would exceed 7 billion. It is hoped that the moneys raised will be used to reconstruct the nation's infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, and government facilities.
* While seismic data reflects the nature and extent of ground movement during an earthquake, it does little to assess the potential impact such an event has on the population within the affected area. For this, the USGS created the PAGER system, which helps predict the number of people exposed to earthquake activity, and incorporates the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale, a set of intensity values, ranging from I to X (1 to 10), based on the observed structural damage resulting from an earthquake. The system is intended to inform emergency response teams, government officials, and the media as to the severity and scope of a potential disaster caused by earthquakes around the world.