Catastrophic Earthquakes in Haiti

Birds eye view of Haiti
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, so it doesn’t take much for death and destruction to occur when a catastrophe hits. More developed nations have higher quality construction for their infrastructure which helps to curtail some of the destruction when a major event happens. 

Additionally, developed countries have well-equipped first responders and hospitals that can handle disasters such as earthquakes. Haiti does not. Suffice it to say, there will be more injuries and fatalities for countries such as Haiti than in other, more technologically advanced locations.

Earthquake History in Haiti

Earthquakes have been causing extensive destruction on this island for quite some time. Starting from the 18th century, when the capital Port-au-Prince experienced severe damage twice within 19 years, the trend continues to date. 

During this century, the island has already been devastated by an earthquake thrice, with the most recent one striking on August 14, 2021. The quake of magnitude 7.2 struck around 78 miles from Port-au-Prince, killing, injuring, and displacing thousands of people, and resulting in millions of dollars of losses. 

Let’s take a closer look and understand why Haiti is more prone to earthquakes and get a detailed insight into some of the most devastating earthquakes that have hit the island recently. 

Why are Earthquakes in Haiti a Common Occurrence?

The Earth’s crust is made of tectonic plates, and each of the plates moves in a certain position. There are seven major tectonic plates along with ten minor tectonic plates. Earthquakes occur when the tectonic plates slowly brush against each other and result in friction. When there is enough buildup of friction, the fault lines suddenly move and lead to an earthquake. 

If you look at the location of Haiti on the map, it sits near the intersection of major and minor tectonic plates, namely the North American Plate and the Caribbean plate. Moreover, multiple fault lines cut through the plates near the island of Hispaniola, a region that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, not all tectonic plates behave the same way. The transition from sliding past each other to smashing together leads to frequent and intense earthquakes. 

Haitian family outside of their cinder block house
Haitian family outside of their cinder block house in the town of Hinche.
Photo by SS

Part of the reason is the dense population of the island. A population of more than 11 million people results in more damage to lives when natural catastrophes occur. Moreover, many of the buildings are constructed using cinder blocks, which can withstand strong winds and hurricanes, but they are not very sturdy (as compared to concrete blocks) and are prone to buckling. Not an ideal structure when an earthquake comes along.

Most Devastating Earthquakes of the 21st Century 

Now that you know why earthquakes in Haiti are devastating, let’s look at some of the most damaging ones that hit the island in this century. 

The 2010 Earthquake – Port-au-Prince 

A large-scale earthquake that measured 7.0 on the Richter’s scale hit the island on January 12, 2010. The quake hit around 15 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, followed by two aftershocks with a magnitude of 5.9 and 5.5, respectively. The island experienced more aftershocks in the days that followed. The 2010 earthquake was the worst quake that hit the island since the 18th century. 

Communications were disrupted and led to extensive damage to life and property. The death toll for this earthquake is not known. However, it resulted in millions of casualties and hundreds and thousands of people being displaced due to the chaos. 

Initially, geologists believed that the earthquake resulted from the movement of the little Caribbean place towards the east; however, it was just an initial estimation. Later, geologists found out that it was a result of contractional deformation along the Leogane fault. Léogâne is a town is located about 19 miles west of  Port-au-Prince.

The damage that occurred due to the 2010 earthquake was fairly extensive because the origin was relatively shallow (at a depth of 8.1 miles), which increased the intensity with which the ground shook. Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas were among the worst affected. The island that was already recovering from the infrastructural damage due to tropical hurricanes in 2008 was not equipped to deal with a disaster of this magnitude.

In addition, since Haiti is considered to be the poorest country in Western Hemisphere, it did not have the resources to properly restore its infrastructure. Hence, international organizations, including the United Nations, had to work in collaboration with the Government of Haiti to establish a plan for reconstructing the island.

The 2018 Earthquake – Port-de-Paix 

While the island was still recovering from the earthquake of 2010 and its after-effects, another major quake hit the island. This time, it was not as intense as it was in 2010. However, it hit the island with a magnitude of 5.9. It struck around 12 miles northwest of Port-de-Paix, killing around 18 people and injuring more than 180 individuals. While there was a limited loss of lives, there was extensive damage to property, including commercial and residential locations. 

The earthquake was felt in Port-au-Prince along with the neighboring Dominican Republic and is one of the strongest hits to the Caribbean nation since 2010. 

The 2021 Earthquake – Nippes, Les Cayes

An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2 struck Haiti on August 14th, 2021. The epicenter was 6.2 miles deep, and the tremor was strongly felt approximately 91 miles west of the capital. The resulting damage was extensive. However, it was much less than what the nation experienced in 2010. According to initial estimates, more than 1.2 million people have been affected by the quake with about 2,000 people have lost their lives. There was also extensive damage to infrastructure, including schools and residential buildings. 

To date, the 2021 earthquake is considered to be the deadliest earthquake that has hit the island since 2010. 

Conclusion 

Haiti sits on the intersection between two tectonic plates, which is also a region of several fault lines. Hence, earthquakes are and may likely be a frequent occurrence on the island. The damage is always extensive because of the lack of appropriate infrastructural facilities on the island.

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