Remembering Haiti

Six years ago today, Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince was devastated by a Magnitude 7 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people.  May their souls rest in peace.

I remember the moment clearly.  Exactly one week prior, I had started a new job at EQECAT as the product manager of worldwide earthquake models.  One of my responsibilities was to issue CatWatch reports for loss-causing or otherwise notable earthquakes.  It was mid-morning (our time), and I was sitting at my desk, speaking with my co-worker Aarti Desai (nee Dinesh) across the desk.  I heard the quiet beep of a new email and glanced up from the conversation, expecting to ignore it.  It was the USGS earthquake notification service.

USGS shakemap Haiti 2010

USGS shakemap Haiti 2010

A shallow quake in the capital of a poor country.  I suddenly felt an intense burning sensation, beginning in my throat, then moving down through my heart, stomach, and down to my gut.  From the look on my face, Aarti immediately knew something was horribly wrong.  She must have thought someone died.  She was right.  Just not someone in my immediate family.

At that time, EQECAT had the only earthquake model for Haiti among our competitors.  Ours would be the only report to be released, at least in the short term.  I spent the rest of that day in a trance, trying to ignore the aching sorrow that weighed on me.  It wasn’t easy to get model results – we didn’t have a great exposure set, so we had to approach it both from top-down and bottom-up, run sensitivity testing, and then write something intelligible, all with in a few short hours.

Most CatWatch introductions are more informational, but the first sentence of this one was simply, “A large earthquake has occurred in Haiti.”  And later, “This is a tragic event”, estimating “several hundred” fatalities.  Understatement of the century.

Now today, on the radio, I heard commentary about how wastefully aid dollars were spent.  How “Build Haiti Back Better” didn’t really happen, out of neglect to include local Haitians in rebuild efforts.   This is obviously a generalization to which there are exceptions and success stories.  But it begs a larger question:

What are realistic expectations for disaster-stricken communities to build back better?  This question is especially relevant to those of us who have dedicated our careers and/or capital to reducing harm from natural disasters.  Is it possible?   Over to you.