Haiti's Disproportionate Casualties after Environmental Disasters: Analyzing Human Vulnerabilities and the Impacts of Natural Hazards

By Felima, Crystal Andrea | Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Haiti's Disproportionate Casualties after Environmental Disasters: Analyzing Human Vulnerabilities and the Impacts of Natural Hazards


Felima, Crystal Andrea, Journal of Haitian Studies


During the 1970s, social scientists began to challenge established ways of understanding 'natural' disasters (Varley, 1994:1). Through case studies and disaster research, these scholars confirmed that environmental hazards are a natural process, although the disasters associated with them are not. Particularly for Haiti, disasters are primarily caused by social vulnerabilities generated by human systems. As a fragile, developing state, the country is most vulnerable to environmental disasters due to its inadequate mitigation efforts, lack of disaster preparedness strategies, and low level of resiliency and livelihood. As a result, environmental disasters routinely occur in Haiti.

In recent years, the impacts of tropical storms and heavy rains have seriously challenged the country. In September 2004, Haiti experienced severe devastation from a category 3 hurricane named Jeanne. The city of Gonaïves received the most media attention because of the storm's catastrophic impacts: roughly, 80 percent of the city flooded, nearly 2,900 lives were lost, and 300,000 residents were left homeless. During the 2008 Atlantic Hurricane Season, the country faced similar disastrous results from four consecutive tropical storms with more than 790 casualties and 300 declared missing persons (IFRC, 2008).

Throughout the 20th century, Haiti has suffered considerably, in terms of death, from the impacts of natural hazards. In comparison, Haiti's high casualties disproportionately outnumber those of neighboring countries affected by these same environmental disasters. Haiti is prone to environmental disasters due to its social and political instability, geographic conditions, and lack of disaster preparedness strategies. Considering the country's condition, this essay addresses several questions: Why does Haiti suffer from high casualties following an environmental disaster? Are these disasters truly "natural"? What are the causes? What are some solutions?

This essay analyzes the social conditions that generate environmental disasters in Haiti. As a case study, the city of Gonaïves and its hurricane events in 2004 and 2008 are explored. The main purpose of this essay is to assess perpetual cycle of environmental destruction in Haiti and to offer recommendations with the purpose of promoting sustainable development and growth.

COUNTRY PROFTLE

On January 1, 1804, the African slaves of Saint Domingue became victorious against the French in order to win their independence. Renamed 'Ayiti' to honor the memory of the Tainos, Haiti became the first Black independent country in the western hemisphere, second free nation after the United States. Haitian independence became a direct threat to European domination. In exchange for independence recognition in 1825 from France, Haiti was demanded to repay the "financial losses" of former French planters and slave owners caused by the Revolution. This "debt" (US$21 billion) interfered with Haiti's development and economic aspirations. In 1862, after the US South had seceded from the Union, the United States finally extended diplomatic recognition to Haiti.

As a means to maintain political interests, domestic and international actors isolated Haiti and prevented the country from participating in the global economy. As a result, the country could not advance its position among world powers in order to gain self-sufficiency. In essence, "Haiti. . . was politically quarantined, maligned by many, assisted by few (D'Agostino & Hillman 2003:196)." Haiti was restricted from developing its real independence in the form of economic autonomy and security. Once the wealthiest colony in the world, Haiti became the poorest nation in the western hemisphere by the end of the 19th century.

Two centuries of political independence have not altered Haiti's economic hardships: approximately 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. According to the Federal Research Division (2006), two-thirds of the population is unemployed, job opportunities are extremely limited, and only 1 in 50 Haitians has a steady wage-earning job. …

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