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Haïti earthquake, January 12th at 4:53pm, 2010

Tectonic setting of the hazard
The nature of the hazard (type, magnitude, frequency)
Capacity to cope (prediction, prevention, preparation)
Institutional capacity
The impact of the event (social, economic, environmental), in the short and longer term
Responses to the event (international and domestic) – Immediate and long term

 1. Tectonic setting

Haïti sits between the Caribbean and North American plates, and is in a very tectonically active zone of our planet.  The Windward Islands of the Caribbean are volcanic in origin and many active volcanoes still exist there. The inner islands, Haïti included, are known as the Leeward Islands and are less volcanically active but do suffer from Earthquakes.  Haïti itself is on a strike slip fault that runs off a destructive plate margin to the north of the Island of Hispaniola, which Haïti shares with the Dominican Republic. 


Country tectonic setting

Broad tectonic setting

2. Magnitude

The magnitude of the earthquake was actually quite small, at only 7.0 on the Richter scale.  In comparison, The Japanese tsunami of 2011 had bigger fore and aftershocks!  This earthquake lasted 1 minute but because of Haïti’s circumstances caused incredible damage.  The epicentre was 15 miles or 20km from the nation’s capital, port au Prince, and the hypocentre or focus was very shallow at only 13km deep.  Seismic waves started at a fault line that was 10km in length.


3. Frequency

It is 200 years since the last major earthquake, so big earthquakes are actually reasonably rare.  However, following the 1755 earthquake there was an even bigger event in 1770. This activity moved west in the 18th century, with Jamaica suffering at this time too, geologists are worried that this could be a new phase in seismic activity in this area with strain energy moving along the fault line.


4. Vulnerability

Haïti was incredibly vulnerable to this earthquake.  The earthquake struck close to the nation’s capital of 2 million people and the geology of the area did not help.  The capital has many areas built upon unstable soils and seismic waves amplified within the soil.  This caused intense shaking and liquefaction, particularly in the Port area which suffered from lateral spreading and land falling into the sea.

In addition and underling all of this is the fact that Haïti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere with a highly vulnerable population:

  • 38% of the population are under 14

  • Infant Mortality is 60/1000

  • Life expectancy was just 60

  • GDP was only $1,300

  • 80% of the population lived below the poverty line and

  • 53% were literate

(All statistics for 2009)


Conditions in the Cité de Soleil slum or shanty town in Port-au-Prince, prior to the Earthquake.  What chances would people have had during the earthquake to survive?  How would these conditions affect their capacity to cope?



5. Capacity to cope (prediction, preparation, prevention)


Famous Geologist Paul Mann wrote a report in 2008 that a major earthquake could happen here, and that the damage could be catastrophic. Unfortunately, Haïti does not have the resources to heed such warnings.  The building quality was also proved to be very poor, and most loss of life was due to building collapse. 

Also, because people were so poor they had few ‘reserves’ (money, food) to draw on and there is a very limited social safety net.

At least 500,000 people in the slum of Cité de Soleil in Port-au-Prince live in abject poverty, these people were the worst affected

Haïti was already reliant on international aid for over 30% of national GDP even before the earthquake.

6. Institutional capacity


Haïti had a very poor institutional capacity to withstand this earthquake.  First, major transport links were completely knocked out by the earthquake.  The port was damaged by liquefaction and lateral spreading, and cranes and debris fell into the sea.  The airport control tower and runway were damaged too, to compound matters.

Damage to the port - Source

Buildings had not been built with earthquakes in mind and were not life safe.  50% of buildings collapsed due to cheap construction methods- lack of corner braces, lack of steel in vertical uprights etc.  This meant that buildings “pancaked” or the floors collapsed one on top of the other.

Roads were also very badly damaged and hindered aid efforts.

A "pancaked" building - Source

Politically, Haïti was in bad shape too. From 1957–86 people lived under the brutal dictatorship of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier. In 1987 Elections abandoned due to violence. By 1990 President Aristide was elected, but political chaos is the order of the day. By 2004 Military coup removes Aristide. United Nations Stabilisation Mission enters Haïti.  Since 2004 the UN has attempted to help stabilise the country, sometimes described as a ‘failed state’.

Many institutions were destroyed, including; Three Médecins Sans Frontières hospitals, the landline telephone system, the Palace of the president, the Finance Ministry, the HQ of the UN Mission, the World Bank office in Haïti and the Main prison in Port-au-Prince.  All of these undermined recovery efforts.

7. Immediate response


Individuals tried to recover their belongings, and scientists flocked to the area to gather vital research data.  The actual aid effort was almost non-existent from within Haïti as its institutions had been destroyed or did not have the resources to cope.  The foreign aid effort was slowed down by the lack of transport infrastructure and a lack of coordination.

Satellite Imagery was used in London to guide relief efforts on the ground in Haïti.

Many countries responded to appeals for aid, pledging funds and dispatching rescue and medical teams, engineers and support personnel.

There was much confusion over who was in charge, air traffic congestion, and problems with prioritisation of flights further complicated early relief work.

Port-au-Prince's morgues were quickly overwhelmed with many tens of thousands of bodies having to be buried in mass graves.

As rescues tailed off, supplies, medical care and sanitation became priorities.

Delays in aid distribution led to angry appeals from aid workers and survivors, and looting and sporadic violence were observed.


8. Social, Economic & Environmental impact (include primary and secondary Hazards)


316,000 people died and more than a million people were made homeless, even in 2011 people remained in make shift temporary homes. Large parts of this impoverished nation where damage, most importantly the capital Port Au Prince, where shanty towns and even the presidential palace crumbled to dust. 3 million people in total were affected. Few of the Buildings in Haïti were built with earthquakes in mind, contributing to their collapse

The government of Haïti also estimated that 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings had collapsed or were severely damaged. The port, other major roads and communications link were damaged beyond repair and needed replacing. The clothing industry, which accounts for two-thirds of Haïti's exports, reported structural damage at manufacturing facilities. It is estimated that 1 in 5 jobs were lost as a result of the quake

Rubble from collapsed buildings blocked roads and rail links.

The port was destroyed

Sea levels in local areas changed, with some parts of the land sinking below the sea

The roads were littered with cracks and fault lines

9. Long term responses (domestic, international, NGOs)

 The EU gave $330 million and the World Bank waived the countries debt repayments for 5 years.

The Senegalese offered land in Senegal to any Haïtians who wanted it!

6 months after the quake, 98% of the rubble remained uncleared; some still blocking vital access roads.

The number of people in relief camps of tents and tarps since the quake was 1.6 million, and almost no transitional housing had been built. Most of the camps had no electricity, running water, or sewage disposal, and the tents were beginning to fall apart.

Between 23 major charities, $1.1 billion had been collected for Haïti for relief efforts, but only two percent of the money had been released

One year after the earthquake 1 million people remained displaced

The Dominican Republic which neighbours Haïti offered support and accepted some refugees.

Medicines San frontiers, a charity, tried to help casualties whilst the USA took charge of trying to coordinate Aid distribution.