Haiti, Hopeful Yesterday, Suddenly Plunged Back Into Chaos

Haiti was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake blanketed the island nation in devastation yesterday. In the past decade alone, aggressive deforestation had left the country without a stable food supply and extremely vulnerable to landslides. So when a tropical storm flooded Haiti in 2004, 2,500 people died. It was the same year as the rebellion that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (himself restored to office by U.S. Marines in 1994), leaving behind a mess for the U.N. peacekeeping mission to clean up. Then, in August 2008, Hurricane Gustav made landfall, followed barely a week later by Hurricane Hanna, and then Hurricane Ike a week after that. More than 800 people were killed and thousands were left homeless.

And yet somehow, despite catastrophe upon catastrophe, Haiti had been on the mend. With help and guidance it might even have achieved something like normalcy. According to a World Bank briefing from September:

Since 2004, Haiti has improved its economic and social stability, elected a president and parliament, and launched wide-ranging reforms. Nonetheless, the country continues to face huge challenges in its efforts to improve governance, stimulate growth, reduce poverty, control crime and violence, and reduce vulnerability to natural disasters and other shocks. Addressing these challenges will require many years of steady international assistance, as well as massive efforts by the Haitian government and people.

Most of Haiti's 8.8 million people live in acute poverty. In 2001, 54 percent of Haitians lived on less than a dollar a day and 78 percent on less than two dollars. GDP per capita was just $728 in 2008. Infrastructure, health and social indicators are the worst in the Americas, often below averages for Sub-Saharan Africa. Environmental degradation is severe, leaving the country especially vulnerable to floods, landslides and hurricanes.

From there, things seemed to be going uphill. Just last week, Hedi Annabi, Haiti's top U.N. representative, told reporters that the country's security and economy improved in 2009 as it skirted political deadlock despite the ouster of yet another prime minister. He said democratic and economic development would hinge on legislative and presidential elections planned for this year, the earlier of which was set to take place on Feb. 23.

Yesterday, though, Annabi may have died along with his deputy, more than 150 of their staff, and thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of Haitian citizens. Even if the political progress doesn't evaporate, the country has just plunged into a humanitarian and economic hole. President René Preval survived, but the basic infrastructure of the state has been destroyed. "Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed," said Preval, as he described stepping over bodies this morning. With the United Nations mission—responsible for the 9,000 peacekeeping troops holding the nation together—decimated and Preval's already weak institutions in shards, Haiti's future, which showed hints of light yesterday, is looking awfully dark today.

For any readers interested in contributing to help the victims, we have information on how to keep informed, how to check on loved ones, and how to donate to charities working in Haiti.

We also have an explanation of why the earthquake was so unexpected, along with an unsettling collection of images from Haiti and other quake zones caught by surprise.