“The Asian tsunami may have strained the emergency services of countries, but it did not disable capital cities like Jakarta or Colombo … Haiti is very poor. It just does not have the resources or the money to respond to an emergency. What capacity it did have to respond was completely knocked out. This earthquake hit a country which was already barely functional.”
Factors specific to Haiti have made the emergency harder than usual to respond to. The UN already fed more than 1 million people in Haiti before the quake, which destroyed many of its warehouses as well as its Port-au-Prince headquarters. Key Haitian government officials and civil servants also died, making co-ordination between the emergency services and the international aid effort more complex.
Alison Evans, director of the Overseas Development Institute, said contact between citizens and the government was important for recovery efforts, and the lack of government institutions would slow down any legitimate relief.
Evans also said the element of surprise in the Haiti earthquake meant it had been harder to mobilise relief efforts compared with natural disasters in other poor countries.
“Often with flood warnings or food crises there’s a degree of warning and a period of being able to build up a response. But the Haiti earthquake was absolutely like a bolt out of the blue,” she said.
Oxfam’s International’s director, Penny Lawrence, said: “It was made far worse because all the leading international organisations lost staff and equipment. We all had contingency plans and equipment stores in Haiti. But everyone’s warehouses were damaged in the earthquake. We lost 90% of our emergency kit. Pre-positioned water [purification] equipment, tanks, latrines, pumps were all buried … We managed to rescue some tools, but we lost satellite phones, everything.”
Another problem was that almost all communication systems were destroyed. Mobile and landline phone services were lost, and for more than 48 hours it was only possible to make contact on satellite phones, although many of these had also been lost. This meant that organisations could not communicate with either their staff or with each other.
The mobile phone system only started working yesterday.
The first few days of a major disaster are always chaotic, but Haiti has presented unique logistical problems. Although its small airport is open, it is only able to handle a few planes an hour and has no fuel to allow aircraft to leave.
The main port is unable to offload supplies from ships, and the key road to neighbouring Dominican Republic is clogged, as hundreds of lorries try to get in and out of Haiti. Governments and NGOs say that the full aid effort will not be possible without sea and road access.
“It is not possible to do everything by air. You need sea or land access to feed and water so many people. And we just have not had that,” said Laurent Dedieu, a Médecins Sans Frontières logistics supervisor. “We cannot find any diesel fuel in the city. We have roughly two to three days maximum of fuel in stock. So we need to start work on an emergency supply chain, either from Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, or from Miami.
“We are assessing the possibility of using sea transport, but the problem is that the city’s port is damaged.”