Earthquake in Haiti: A Failure in Crisis Management?

By Piotrowski, Chris | Organization Development Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Earthquake in Haiti: A Failure in Crisis Management?

Piotrowski, Chris, Organization Development Journal


The 2010 earthquake in Haiti provides a real-life framework that highlights the political realities of responding to mass emergencies and also reveals some of the limitations of the extant literature on crisis management in facilitating global response in the immediate aftermath of major disasters. Recently, researchers in the field of emergency management and disasters (e.g., Boin, 2009; Drabek, 2007; Shalev et al., 2000) have outlined issues that need to be addressed by crisis managers, policymakers, and government officials. This article discusses some of the premises regarding the critical lack of crisis management factors (e.g., modeling, agency coordination and integration, crisis planning, leadership functions) that limit the efficacy of the role of national initiatives related to the preparedness for, response to, recovery from, and mitigation of major natural disasters.


Natural disasters have been (and continue to be) a major research focus in my professional development. Despite the fact that crisis events have many common issues and characteristics (Lalonde, 2007), I am continually struck by the stark reality that individual natural disasters have a host of unique factors, many of which have not been the focus of prior research. This is interesting since the body of knowledge regarding natural disasters, including earthquakes, is quite voluminous (see Table 1).

For example, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was largely an uncontrolled fire event; the 1994 Northridge, CA earthquake called attention to pancake-collapse on major roadways; the Mt. St. Helen eruption prompted major flooding. More recently, Hurricane Katrina revealed the weaknesses of the levee system and faulty construction and maintenance by the U.S. Corp of Engineers (van Heerden, 2006); the 2004 series of major hurricanes that hit the state of Florida highlighted the problems of sequential disasters targeting one geographic area in succession; the great Indonesian Tsunami of 2004 showed the inadequacy of tida learly warning systems (Pardasani, 2006).

I would argue that a) despite advances in disaster prediction and mitigation, many features and aspects of natural disasters, including crisis issues post-event, are largely unpredictable, and b) due to this uncertainty and ensuing chaos, mitigation and emergency response initiatives tend to be largely lacking in efficacy. Perhaps for these reasons disaster researchers and crisis management professionals need to stress contingency factors in their research, crisis planning, and recovery strategies (Pennebaker & Harber, 1993). With these concerns in mind, I would like to share some of my observations regarding the recent earthquake in Haiti as a case study. I do so, acknowledging the fact that the tragedy is still unfolding and remains in its nascent stages.

Perspectives on the Haitian Earthquake

We have all seen this catastrophic real-life movie before. Destitute, bewildered, injured survivors of a natural disaster waiting for assistance and pleading for aid. Many in mourning, in pain, enveloped in a blanket of despair, numbed by their misfortune and suffering, and mostly just waiting for relief and rescue. This scene looks familiar to the haunting images in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I can not help but imagine the visceral and psychological impact of the earthquake on New Orleans residents to the events unfolding before them-post-traumatic stress reactions and distressing memories. And now it has happened again to a major city, this time on a larger, more precarious scale.

Like Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti is considered, by most accounts, a major mass disaster or calamity. But foremost, these natural disasters are emergency crises. Undoubtedly, the critical immediate issues are a) adequately providing for the basic human needs (nutrition, safe water, shelter), and b) providing medical treatment for the injured, and c) rescuing trapped victims, and d) ensuring public health (burying the dead, sanitation). …

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