Port-au-Prince hours after earthquake.
As Haiti begins rebuilding after a catastrophic earthquake, three UCI professors discuss how it could emerge a stronger country. Shown here: Port-au-Prince hours after the Jan. 12 earthquake. UN Photo/Logan Abassi
It took scarcely 35 seconds Jan. 12 for a magnitude 7.0 earthquake to cripple Haiti, flattening its capital and killing more than 200,000 people, but it will take many years for the island nation to recover. While devastating quakes have since struck in Chile, Japan and elsewhere, Haiti’s situation is unique. Desperately poor before the disaster, the Caribbean republic must rebuild its economy and political system as well as infrastructure like schools and hospitals. Will a new, more stable Haiti rise from the rubble? Three UC Irvine academics share their views.


The survivor

Prior to the earthquake, many gave little thought to Haiti. But Amy Wilentz, a UCI English professor and journalist, has written about the country with a keen eye and sharp wit, notably in her book The Rainy Season: Haiti Since DuvalierWilentz first visited Haiti in 1986 and returned to Port-au-Prince in mid-January to report on the broken capital. For her, the quake “erased both the personal and political past.”

Wilentz: “The damage to Haiti is really unbelievable, all-encompassing. So many of the nation’s government officials and future leaders were killed in the earthquake. The Haitian people are self-governing, and the state delivers nothing: no education, no electricity to speak of, no garbage pickup, little municipal water, hardly any firefighting services, no healthcare, no social security.

“Corruption will probably flourish now, both among Haitian officials, who can live off skimmings from foreign aid organizations, and among outside contractors, as in Iraq. Of course, the system can be improved. What Haiti needs is responsible, democratic leadership that enacts reasonable laws and then abides by them — a strong, serious government that responds to the needs of its people as well as to the desires of the tiny business class.

“The international community offering post-quake assistance, specifically the U.S., should refuse to go forward without including President Rene Preval’s government at every level. The Haitian leadership must be empowered on issues of infrastructure creation, housing, employment and healthcare. With a huge humanitarian effort by their friends, Haitians will rebuild this valuable country — for the better.”

Bringing Haiti up to code

Maria Feng was a high school student in Nanjing, China, when the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 occurred nearly 1,000 miles away, killing a quarter of a million people. She never forgot the images of devastation. “It affected my decision to go into engineering,” she says. The UCI professor of civil & environmental engineering studies ways to make safer buildings, bridges and other structures. Images of the destruction in Haiti, so similar to those from her childhood, left her sad and frustrated.

Feng: “Haiti sustained great damage because it didn’t have any seismic building codes. Most countries in earthquake-prone areas have quake-resistant construction standards. There’s now an urgent need to rebuild homes, hospitals and other key infrastructure in Haiti, but I’m concerned that without drastically changing design and construction practice they won’t be able to withstand another strong earthquake.

“My hope is that the U.S. will disseminate information on how to reinforce buildings. It’s an opportunity for good planning. As engineers, we have the knowledge to help prevent this kind of destruction and save lives, but it needs to be shared. The first step toward rebuilding Haiti should be education.”

Paved with good intentions

While heartened by reports of foreign aid in Haiti, political scientist Cecelia Lynch worries that well-meaning outsiders will attempt to impose solutions that have little grounding in Haiti’s social or cultural practices. It’s a subject she knows well. Lynch, director of UCI’s Center for Global Peace & Conflict Studies, examines religion, ethics and humanitarianism in international affairs. She’s found that donor-driven pressure to show quick results from relief efforts often leads to programs that ignore or even denigrate local history and culture — a scenario she fears for Haiti.

Lynch: “I’m concerned because some media, politicians and pundits have intimated that Haitians are somehow undeserving, helpless or backward — and that’s really unconstructive. Haiti is extremely proud — and justifiably so — of its status as the nation that began as a slave revolt against cruelty and oppression by the French. We need to respect this history and understand that Haiti was forced to pay for its revolution through reparations to France, which put the country in debt until the mid-20th century. The French “Rights of Man” were not observed in Haiti, and the U.S. invaded in the early 20th century — a combination that favored certain elites and helped produce the poverty and inequality seen there today.

“Any aid, especially medical, educational and housing, ought to build upon whatever resources Haiti already has. While the country’s needs are great, assistance should whenever possible draw upon local labor and expertise — including medical personnel, teachers and other professionals — as well as locally made products and parts instead of imports. We also need to eliminate U.S. subsidies on our rice, sugar and other exports to let Haitian farmers earn money selling their crops.

“Haiti can become stronger than before if there is a genuine commitment to addressing the structural issues of poverty while respecting its religions, customs and people.”

Originally published in ZotZine Vol. 2, Iss. 7