The first quarter of 2010 will not soon be forgotten soon in the Americas. The effects of the two catastrophic earthquakes that occurred in Haiti and Chile in the space of about two months will take years, if not decades, to address. There is also a grim regularity to the events that serves as an ungentle reminder of the way in which the frequency and severity of natural disasters worldwide has shot up in the last years. The Chile quake hit just as the Haiti quake was getting far enough behind us to have seeped out of the headlines and settled into its own new Wikipedia entry.
The difference between the effects of the respective quakes also serves as a very timely reminder of one of the central imperatives of disaster risk reduction – the need to focus on human vulnerability and increase human resilience. The fact that the death toll appears to have been so much lower in Chile despite the more forceful quake there speaks volumes. So do some of the vignettes from the New York Times article I read this morning that indicate levels of government capacity and social trust that contrast strongly with earlier reports on the initial absence of the police and later arbitrariness (e.g., handing alleged looters over to lynch mobs) in Port au Prince:
The police fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse hundreds of people who forced their way into shuttered shops in the southern city of Concepción, which was devastated. But law enforcement authorities, heeding the cries of residents that they lacked food and water, eventually settled on a system that allowed staples to be taken but not televisions and other electronic goods.
[President] Bachelet later announced that the government had reached a deal with supermarket chains to give away food to needy residents.
The earthquake, one of the strongest in recorded history, left a devastating footprint on a country that knows quakes well.
Residents of a collapsed 15-story apartment building in Concepción, opened just months ago, were outraged that it had been so badly damaged and were convinced that contractors had not complied with building codes that require buildings to be able to withstand temblors. Already, there was talk among residents of taking builders to court once the emergency is over.
Chile will probably not require nearly as much international assistance to recover from its quake as Haiti. Indeed, while it is crucial that appropriate international assistance be sent to Chile, one hopes that the disaster there will not distract donors and early recovery actors from the critical long-term needs of the Haitian population.