In 1755, a huge earthquake struck Lisbon, destroying the city and killing between 10,000 and 100,000 people. The era's theologians and philosophers attempted to extract some kind of meaning from the tragedy. Some asked how could a good and omnipotent God allow the tragic deaths of so many innocent men, women, and children. Since, the question has been repeated many times when events like the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and other monumental tragedies have occurred. The query does not have an easy answer. Perhaps that is why it is seldom asked anymore.
How to make sense of the current devastation in Haiti? Theology and philosophy have no answer. Geology does, but even this science cannot predict when and where a tremor will happen. At best, sociology can delve into the matter of who is more likely to die and who is more likely to be spared. Usually, the poor and powerless suffer the most. In the case of Haiti, however, this is only partially true. Those who already were living in the streets or in flimsy structures often fared better than those who lived under heavy roofs. The archbishop in Port au Prince died while peasants in the countryside survived unscathed.
There are no explanations for the quake beyond the confluence of geology and (bad) luck. But there are reasons why the quake extracted such an awful toll. What Haiti does exemplify is what happens when an extremely weak institutional order undergoes a huge natural disaster. The lack of building codes, and of disaster preparedness and response -- indeed the virtual absence of a functional goverment -- explain why a disaster that elsewhere would have taken a few hundred lives killed as many as 200,000 in Haiti.
The pattern is similar when it comes to hurricanes. Cuba usually suffers few casualties, the Dominican Republic considerably more. But Haiti endures losses an order of magnitude higher than either country. On a good day Haiti teeters on the edge of disaster. On a very bad day, well, we saw with our very own eyes what happens.
The one silver lining in this tragedy has been the response by the United States and the international community. Whatever delays and problems occurred, they were not for lack of political will on the part of Barack Obama and other world leaders. Obama, in particular, deserves kudos for giving Haiti the highest priority. But what is also clear is that the U.S. armed forces, which has most of the resources needed for disaster response, is not geared up for this kind of mission. The wheels turned too slowly. Some kind of coordinated international agency or network is needed to prepare a more rapid response when catastrophe strikes.
The Haiti quake also should serve as a wake-up call to the Dominican Republic. That nation is exposed to similar seismic risks as Haiti. The level of urbanization in the Dominican Republic is decidedly greater than in Haiti. How prepared are Santo Domingo, Santiago de los Caballeros and other Dominican cities to withstand and respond to an earthquake of the magnitude that struck Haiti? The answer is not very well. Thus there needs to be an urgent assessment of the building codes and the status of urban structures with a view to retrofitting where possible and ensuring that new structures can withstand a major earthquake. There is also a need to bolster the capacity for emergency response.
As for Haiti, recovery is not enough. Before the quake, Haiti already was a socioeconomic and ecological disaster. What is needed is very long term assistance by the international community that empowers Haitians to guide and effect their nation's development. It won't be easy but it's not impossible.