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Why Port-au-Prince Collapsed

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The contrast is still astonishing. 62 dead in the September 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area; 45,000 to 200,000 dead in the Haitian earthquake of the same magnitude.

A Frenchman who heads an organization called Architectes de l’urgence (Emergency Architects) offered part of the explanation before he left for Port-au-Prince to help.
Patrick Coulombel, who had already worked in Haiti, told an interviewer in Le Monde that the concrete buildings that predominate there are more susceptible to earthquakes than structures of steel. “They build in concrete because it is much cheaper than steel,” he explained. “The problem is, that contrary to what you might expect, building in concrete is highly technical. Badly-built concrete buildings can have dramatic consequences.”
He went on: “But most highly skilled people have left Haiti. There are few of the architects and engineers still there that you needed to build well.”
I thought back to one of my visits to Haiti, when I sat on the plane next to a Haitian electrician named Richard who was going home from New York to bury his mother. (When I expressed sympathy that she had died relatively young, aged 63, he said his family was actually relieved she had lived so long, given the life expectancy there.)

As we circled the now famous Port-au-Prince airport, he pointed proudly to the landing lights. “I helped install those,” he said.
Richard was part of what is sometimes called the “brain drain” from the third world. He was working for the New York transit authority, and – typically of Haitians in the diaspora – also earning an advanced degree. He did not leave Haiti to earn more money. He left – like tens of millions from elsewhere in the third world – because there was no longer any work at all for him at home.
The generosity of Americans and others has been inspiring. In the end, though Haitians like Robert who live overseas will contribute even more to help rebuild their homeland. In 2008, the diaspora sent $1.2 billion to Haiti. One expert predicts that figure will double in 2010.

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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