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Haiti's Earthquake: Prevention and Preparedness Woefully Low

The horrific images of the death and destruction after Haiti’s massive earthquake are both a call to action for the international community to provide immediate humanitarian assistance, and a sad but urgent reminder of the importance of disaster preparedness and risk reduction. The 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the impoverished country late Tuesday afternoon just outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. The quake was the worst in the region in more than 200 years. A day after the quake, there was no estimate on casualties, but thousands of people are believed to be dead. The quake left the country in shambles, without electricity or phone service, tangling efforts to provide relief to an estimated 3 million people whom the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said had been affected by the quake.

While the horrors of the disaster are still unfolding, several realities have become clear. First, Haiti, which has suffered decades of conflict, poor governance and crippling poverty, needs immediate assistance from the international community. President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and other U.S. officials have responded immediately, pledging support, organizing assistance and finding ways to quickly deploy search and rescue teams and deliver relief and reconstruction aid. Getting international assistance to Haiti, a small tropical island in the Caribbean, is not easy since the airport is barely functional, with the air traffic control system knocked out and destroyed roads leading to and from it. But the international community appears to be working closely together to do their best.

In relative terms, the international community responds fairly well to humanitarian emergencies caused by natural disasters once the disaster has occurred. However, the international community performs quite poorly in helping countries prepare for those disasters and implement strategies to minimize death and destruction. The field of disaster risk reduction is certainly growing and there are numerous strategies (many of them low-cost) that can be used to make, for example, construction of buildings – especially schools and hospitals – safer and less prone to collapse when disasters do hit. The Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies – Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery guidelines on safer school construction is an excellent example of these types of strategies.

Still, global funding for disaster risk reduction is woefully low. Official assistance commitments from all donor countries for disaster prevention and preparedness totaled a mere $339.5 million in 2008, compared to the $9,548.6 million official donors spent on emergency response that same year, according to the OECD statistical database. This is not enough to meet the needs of disaster prevention and preparedness. The number of natural disasters has increased, with current averages of 400-500 per year in 2007 compared to the average of 125 in the early 1980s. In 2009 alone, 55 million people were affected by extreme weather, causing $15 billion in economic damages.

Indeed, with internal improvements and assistance from the office of the U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti, amongst others, the situation in Haiti is improving and a disaster risk reduction plan is in the works. However, the earthquake in Haiti is a poignant and heartbreaking reminder for the U.S. and international community of the need to invest in disaster preparedness.