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Why Haiti Is a 'Hub of Natural Disaster'

Hurricane Matthew struck a nation where poverty and poor planning have left urban residents at particular risk.

Villages on Haiti's western coast have been all but destroyed by Hurricane Matthew's winds. (Reuters )

Haiti has begun a three-day period of national mourning for the victims of Hurricane Matthew, which barreled through the desperately impoverished Caribbean nation as a Category 4 storm last week, packing winds that roared at 145 miles per hour and dumping at least 25 inches of rain. The enormous scale of the damage is still being revealed, but the country’s interior minister says almost 900 have been killed and perhaps 350,000 need aid, according to the BBC. Tens of thousands of homes and buildings in the nation’s southwest have been destroyed. Meanwhile, fears of deadly cholera have grown, with Reuters reporting 13 deaths so far from disease outbreaks in the wake of the storm.*

It’s a tragically familiar story for Haiti, which was devastated by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 and the floods that followed it in 2011. And now, with Hurricane Matthew, the cycle of destruction and reconstruction continues, leaving urban Haitians at particular risk.

“The environmental and infrastructure dynamics are all intertwined in a vicious circle with the political and economic challenges,” says Alex Fischer, the associate director of the Haiti Research and Policy Program in the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development at Columbia University.

There are two big reasons why Haiti is so vulnerable to extreme weather.

An ever-present risk of flooding in the southwest

Haiti’s southwestern peninsula, which suffered the brunt of Hurricane Matthew’s wrath, is no stranger to rain-related devastation. Over three days in 2011, the Port-à-Piment area received 12 inches of rain. Major roadways were cut off, houses were destroyed, and emergency workers couldn’t reach the stranded.

This time around, the same weather station has recorded 5 inches after just one day of Hurricane Matthew. Another one at Pic Macaya, which is at an elevation of around 7,700 feet, has registered 9.1 inches. Heavier rain at higher elevations tends to travel downstream through narrow rivers, and inevitably spill over in densely packed low-lying areas. “Community members in Port-à-Piment would tell us that they ‘sleep with their eyes open’ because of historically ingrained fear,” Fischer, who conducted research in the area until 2014, tells CityLab. “Even small amounts of precipitation in the upper elevations may result in major flooding within a few hours in their homes in the urban areas along the coast.”

Here’s a 3-D visualization Fischer included a 2013 blog post, which shows the flood risk to the Port-à-Piment watershed:

Natural topography, environmental degradation, and urbanization along the areas near river outlets are all to blame for this disproportionate flooding. To mitigate the damage, Fischer recommends better early warning systems, watershed management, urban drainage, and both formal and informal housing. Hurricane Matthew “will be the next test of what progress has been made towards more resilient and prepared urban and rural towns,” Fischer says. “Unfortunately it’s a big and unfair test.”

The poverty problem

In 2009, Remy Sietchiping, who was then a land tenure specialist at the UN’s Human Settlements Programme, wrote a paper about the myriad urban planning problems that made Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city, so vulnerable to disasters. He called it a “hub of natural disaster.”

The city has shoddy buildings, precarious slums, spotty sewage infrastructure. But it also has jobs—at least more so than surrounding rural areas and smaller cities. So, people continue to settle there, building out the slopes in the surrounding hills and mountains. “Poor land use management on the steep slopes of these mountains and hills have led to severe land and vegetation degradation as well as the destruction of natural drainage system,” Sietchiping noted.

The city of Jérémie in Haiti’s southwest peninsula has experienced some of the heaviest damage. (Reuters)

The 2010 earthquake, and the deadly outbreak of cholera that followed, exposed the fragility of city planning. But rebuilding efforts haven’t fixed the capital’s problems. The trash is still blocking waterways. Streets are still flooding when it rains. The governments still can’t take care of the urban poor during floods or in-between floods. “I think this is not fundamentally an urban planning problem. It is a poverty problem,” says Melika Edquist, manager of data, monitoring, and accountability initiatives at United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. “You can't plan better for Port-au-Prince without considering all the factors that undermine execution of those plans—that means the international actors who control Haiti's purse, the rural poor who fuel the energy-starved urban poor, the centralized government with little power, the city governments with non-existent budgets.”

In the years after the quake, there has been a push to build up cities like Les Cayes in the South so that the population pressure on Port-Au-Prince could ease. But in those smaller cities, too, infrastructural needs remain, and local economies haven’t gained enough traction to retain residents. So in recent years people have made their way back to the capital—to a place without basic services—which they know is prone to deadly natural disasters. Because, compared to the risks from landslides, earthquakes, and floods, the “daily risks of poverty always loom larger,” Edquist says.

*This post has been updated with current information.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.