By now you've heard that the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti, has been hit with a major earthquake. This after getting hit with four named storms in the last year. Haiti observers (I hesitate to talk about "authorities" in this case) are talking a death toll over 100,000. This is truly horrible and I'm sure we all have nothing but sympathy for the Haitian people.
But I think it's worth talking about WHY Haiti is so vulnerable. Big quakes hit lots of countries without killing hundreds of thousands of people. Why is it so horrible in Haiti? Haiti is like a perfect storm of social, economic, environmental and political problems.
Economics: There is virtually no foreign investment in the country so the economy - under the best of circumstances - is little more than subsistence. 80% of its population lives in poverty. Haiti is what happens when all the evil capitalists leave. Haiti is the warning to the people who think that multi national investment causes poverty. Foreign investment may not eliminate poverty but if you remove it, you need a really dark imagination to visualize the consequences.
Politics: There is virtually no government capable of acting as such. Haiti is also the warning to those on the right who think that the absence of government would be some kind of paradise. Haiti operates in a state if near anarchy. There is a tiny national police force that I heard a US observer describe as "better than before but not up to this." There are virtually no fire departments. As you might imagine for a country with such a weak government, there are virtually no building codes so the quake destroyed a lot of the capital city (I saw one picture of the capital right after the shaking stopped and the entire city was covered with a rising dust cloud from collapsed buildings).
Environment: The country has been almost totally denuded of trees. People have cut down the forests for fuel and to clear farm land. This has exacerbated the effects of the quake because Haiti is also rather mountainous. Denuded mountains are prone to landslides. I also shudder to think about the poor access to clean drinking water in Haiti even before the quake and it is certainly worse now.
Social: All of these problems mean that for Haitians the response to the quake is going to be an individual, family or maybe neighborhood affair. The response we saw to Katrina in the US is unthinkably utopian compared to what is possible in Haiti. The response the Indian Ocean countries managed after the Tsunami is equally unimaginable for Haiti.
What we are watching unfold in Haiti is what happens when everything goes wrong ... and then there are natural disasters.
UPDATE: Here is what Pat Robertson says about Haiti. He claims the country made a pact with the Devil to expell the French and all their problems since are a result of that. Yes folks, it's the voice of the Republican base. When will the GOP leadership repudiate hate mongers like Robertson?