Haiti Struggles to Recover After Series of Natural Disasters and Political Instability

A rescue crew searches through rubble for survivors. Image by David Mark.

Michael McEwen / Staff Writer 

Southern Haiti was the epicenter of a magnitude 7.2 earthquake on Aug. 14 which left more than 2,000 dead and 30,000 without shelter, further complicating the Caribbean nation’s ongoing political crisis. 

Haiti’s second major earthquake in 11 years, this disaster occurred during a period of acute instability for the national government.

Following the assassination of embattled President Jovenel Moïse in July, the government has struggled to project its authority over a populace that has challenged the legitimacy of the regime since 2018. 

“I know I can’t compare to how the people feel there, but it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s my country and it’s falling apart right before my eyes,’” said Rebecca Devariste, vice president of the Haitian Student Union at FIU.

Devariste was attending a Haitian community funeral in West Palm Beach when she received the news.

“There was a speaker at the funeral and he announced that there was an earthquake. The whole room went silent,” said Devariste, whose parents are Hatian nationals. 

Families are thinking, ‘well, how do we get inside?’”

Haiti’s location over two prominent Caribbean fault zones leaves the country susceptible to frequent seismic events. Both this earthquake and the one that struck the capital, Port-Au-Prince, in 2010 occurred along the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone. 

While stronger than the earthquake which rocked the capital 11 years ago, the immediate effects of this event were thought to be less severe because it didn’t strike an urban center as densely populated as Port-Au-Prince –home to almost a quarter of the Haitian population. 

Map marking the southern region of Haiti affected by the earthquake. Courtesy of © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Immediate search and rescue missions were conducted with concern over the approach of tropical depression Grace, which strengthened to a tropical storm only two days after the earthquake, inundating the region with heavy rain and winds.

Since the main earthquake a month ago over 500 aftershocks have been felt, affecting the integrity of buildings still standing in the area near the epicenter. In towns across the south, damage to hospitals forced doctors to treat patients in outdoor wards comprised of tents and shaded trees in fear of the risk of collapse

Ann Lee, co-founder of Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE), a crisis response organization, said the widespread collapse of buildings combined with the need for shelter has forced numerous Haitians into large congregations. This heightened the risk of COVID-19 transmission in a country which has only been able to provide vaccines to 0.2 percent of its population

“This is just the hierarchy of ‘what is the biggest risk right now?,” said Lee. “Families are thinking, ‘well, how do we get inside?’”

But to Daniel Foote, who the Biden administration appointed Special Envoy for Haiti in late July, there is more to the nation’s low vaccination rate. 

“I think the international community is hiding a little bit behind vaccine hesitance in Haiti for the low numbers,” said Foote. “Money is really what we need to do vaccines.” 

Both Lee and Foote spoke at the Aftermath of the Haiti Earthquake Panel, hosted on Sept. 9 by FIU’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy.

The destruction caused by the earthquake also compounded the effects of 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, a category 4 storm that destroyed nearly the entire staple crop of the southern peninsula

This caused concern over food and water shortages to rise as the damage in the southern town of Les Cayes was assessed. Grocery stores and markets in the port city collapsed entirely, presenting nearly 500,000 people with the stark potential of famine, said Haitian Senator Joseph Lambert to the Tri-City Herald. 

What quickly became a humanitarian disaster in Haiti is also a cultural one.

As the second oldest republic in the Americas, the Caribbean nation boasts a collection of historic buildings dating back to the 17th Century. Between the 2010 earthquake and this one, hundreds of these buildings have collapsed or been condemned

One of the many churches that collapsed in the southern region of the island after the earthquake. Screenshot of a tweet by Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles. 

Nicolas André, a native of Haiti’s southern region and a professor at FIU’s Department of Modern Languages, volunteered as an aid worker following the 2010 disaster and grew up with Moïse in the suburb of Carrefour. 

Two weeks after August’s earthquake, André spoke to Student Media about what the loss of these buildings means in the larger scope of Haitian identity. 

“The churches and buildings that collapsed in 2010 and in this earthquake were identity marks for people, and sometimes these buildings can be hard to rebuild,” said André, who has taught Haitian Kreyol at FIU for 11 years. 

Haitians praying on the remains of a church that collapsed due to the earthquake. Screenshot of a twitter post by @FaithfulOTC.

International Aid Efforts 

As a response to Haiti’s growing humanitarian crisis, the United Nations announced on Aug. 25, an appeal for $187.3 million in aid to support those left vulnerable by the natural disasters. 

The United States supplied an estimated 600,000 pounds of humanitarian assistance to Haiti in over 700 flights to the country, said Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles during the panel. In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a provisional amount of $32 million in humanitarian aid two weeks after the earthquake. 

Experts and Haitians alike warn this isn’t enough.

“$32 million in response to this earthquake is nothing-it’s not sufficient,” said Lee. “We’re talking about an entire southern region which is Haiti’s breadbasket already suffering from food insecurity.”

“For us to just look at $32 million allocated by the U.S. government, it is not enough and that is a short-term, band-aid solution,” she said.

Foote believes international aid has been lacking due to the international community’s perception of the disaster. 

“I think that because this event was different in magnitude, although not in tragedy, that there’s a different level in international appetite (for aid),” he said. “You won’t see $14 billion like we saw in 2010 from the international community.” 

But to André, the supply of aid to those affected by the earthquake is the top priority.

“Right now, the way Haiti is, a lot of people are counting on foreign aid,” said André.“You hope, but sometimes you have to be realistic about what is possible and what you know can be done.”

Mountains outside the town of Jacmel, located in southern Haiti. Photo by Claudia Altamimi on Unsplash

The Big South

Haiti’s southern region, known as Grand Sud, or the big south, is a sparsely populated and densely mountainous region with long-running roads that connect the region’s few cities. Combined with the damage from Grace, the distribution of aid has faced several complications.

“A huge challenge is the geographic area and the remoteness of these communities, which is a big difference from the 2010 earthquake,” said Jean Marc De Matteis, CEO of Hópital Albert Schweitzer, who also spoke at the panel. 

De Matteis’ medical center, located north of Port-Au-Prince, provides healthcare services to a population of more than 350,000 people in a 610 square-mile radius. 

Mudslides and flooding brought on by Grace destroyed communities as well as several sections of National Route 7, the main highway connecting Les Cayes to the northern coast of the peninsula.

In one section of the road, a collapsed bridge prevented rescue teams from accessing the town of Jeremie on the far side of the Glace River. This led De Matteis to fear the number of fatalities will rise considerably when the most affected areas are reached.

Tropical storm Grace flooded the southern region of Haiti, causing landslides and destroying roads. Screenshot of a tweet from the British Red Cross.

Lee has coordinated CORE’s efforts on the ground since the earthquake last month. She believes repairing the highway and gaining access to the communities along its route is imperative. 

“We have the solutions at hand,” said Lee. “We need to fix that bridge, we need to fix, at least temporarily, the road that connects Les Cayes to Jeremie…It’s just a will of determination from larger donor countries and the government to basically just push forward.”


Haiti’s political crisis of the past three years also delayed aid shipments to those affected by the earthquake. 

Prior to Moïse’s assasination, inquiries over the level of violence used against protesters became pronounced when reports linked the government with a de facto alliance of gangs known as the ‘G9 an Fanmi’. 

The agreement was straightforward: where the Moïse regime was able to outsource the crackdown on anti-government protests to the G9, the gang was guaranteed a functional impunity for the crimes they committed. 

This involved the kidnapping of children for ransom and the murder of protestors both in the streets and at home. 

Two weeks prior to Moïse’s assassination, G9 leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier– notorious for his role in the La Saline massacre–announced the gang would now be a revolutionary force whose goal was to free Haiti from the government, as well as what he described as the “national bourgeoisie”.

Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier served as a police officer for 14 years before becoming the leader of Port-Au-Prince’s Delmas 6 gang full-time in 2017. Screenshot of a twitter post.

With the government suddenly crippled by the assasination of Moïse on July 7, gangs stepped in and took control of even more territory.

“The biggest challenge I’ve seen in the response to this earthquake is the security situation and the gangs’ ability to control areas of Haiti and the main road to the south,” said Foote. 

With the president’s legitimization of the G9 alliance and other gangs, aid shipments were delayed to the most affected areas of Haiti’s southern peninsula by attacks and road blocks. Several of the shipments were volunteered by Haitian citizens.

After over a week of these attacks, Chérizier ordered them stopped, which allowed aid to flow to the southern peninsula. By doing this, and realigning himself with the image of Moïse the martyr, Chérizier garnered himself a considerable amount of political capital in a post-disaster, post presidential assassination Haiti. 

Having returned to Haiti after leaving in 2012, Foote spoke passionately about plans for an anti-gang task force trained and set up by the United States to “return the Haitian ground to its people.” 

However, he failed to mention how Chérizer, who received training from both the United States and the United Nations as a police officer, was able to expand his gangs’ influence and form the alliance while working with the national police. 

Corruption bigger than a country

Haiti has struggled with corruption and rigid political divides for much of its history. 

André believes the divide between the elite and the Haitian people, no matter how opaque, defines instability in Haiti today. 

“Stability is something we long for, we want it, but too many politicians have too many diversions and we have too many political groups,” said André. “It’s not clearly defined who is doing what and what their stand is, but what is clear is that you have the population and you have the rest.”

After achieving independence in 1804, a new national elite began to form, filling the space left behind by French colonists who dictated the colony’s affairs from enclaves in Haiti’s north. 

Deriving power from a highly stratified social system installed by the French, this new Haitian elite found themselves close to the national government and increasingly separate from the rest of the population. While the new elite wanted a return to the plantation economy which defined French rule, recently freed slaves wanted to work their own lands. 

These divides persisted throughout the 29 year Duvalier dynasty and into the current era. 

Haiti’s first democratically elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, enjoyed popular support from the country’s masses and enacted sweeping reforms which sought to place more of the country into civilian control

But, a number of these reforms angered the military and national elite, and Aristide was deposed in a coup eight months after his inauguration in 1991. 

Haitian protestors march against U.S. support for President Jovenel Moïse prior to his assassination in July. Image by Phil Pasquini

At the time of his assassination, Jovenel Moïse had ruled Haiti by decree for 18 months after legislative elections were delayed. Combined with widespread outrage over alleged embezzlement and constitutional abuses, the former businessman looked poised to consolidate even more power to himself. 

“There is corruption everywhere, but when the corruption is bigger than the country itself you know this can happen,” said André.

The investigation into how his assasination unfolded only intensified questions over how deep Haiti’s political divides run. 

Over 44 arrests have been made in a little over two months, and on Sept. 15, Prime Minister Ariel Henry fired chief prosecutor Bed-Ford Claude after he called for him to be charged in the assasination.  A day later, Haitian justice minister Rockfeller Vincent was replaced by Henry after he called for his arrest. 

Henry was named to the post by Moïse within days of the assasination, and after agreeing to a political transition with interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, now serves as both President and Prime Minister of Haiti.  

National elections originally scheduled for September were set to address both Moïse’s rule and the absent Haitian Parliament, whose last runoff was in 2016. But, a two-month delay following the assasination and a deepening of the political crisis may delay elections further. 

“We still need elections,” said André. “Even if there is a delay, the main issue now is what is the equivalent of the congress? It’s nonexistent right now in Haiti.” 

Foote believes that solving the government’s crisis of legitimacy in the eyes of the Haitian population is paramount to beginning the recovery process. 

“The short-term challenge is we need to implement that with a partner that’s considered legitimate in the eyes of the Haitian people, and that’s why a political agreement is critical,” said Foote. 

“The Haitian people don’t have to convince any party to be a part of this,” he said. “All parties need to convince the Haitian people that they should be a part of the transition.” 


The developing crisis in Haiti has produced one of the Americas’ largest migration patterns. 

Migration from Haiti to the United States increased 17 percent since 2010, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute. South American countries such as Brazil and Chile have also accepted thousands of migrants. 

But as the top global destination for Haitians fleeing structural issues at home, the United States over the past five years has shifted their approach to Haitian asylum seekers. 

Late into his last term, former U.S. President Barack Obama announced that deportations to Haiti would continue following a six year moratorium in response to the 2010 disaster. This ruling specifically targeted new arrivals seeking asylum from instability and economic malaise at home. 

The trend continued under former President Donald Trump, who abruptly ended Temporary Protective Status(TPS) for Haitian and other asylum seekers in 2017. While the legitimacy of this was battled out in federal courts, nearly 6,000 Haitian nationals were deported that year, the highest increase of any foreign born group, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Thousands of Haitian asylum seekers wait to be processed under the Del Rio International Bridge on the Texas-Mexico border. Screenshot of twitter post.

The deportation of newly arrived Haitian migrants increased dramatically during the early days of the Biden Presidency. Citing a section of the Public Health Service Act, originally passed in 1944, the Biden Administration deported more Haitians in a matter of weeks than its predecessor had in all of 2020, according to a report

With a deepening crisis at home and the economic effects of COVID-19 lockdowns across South America, thousands of Haitian migrants are making their way north through Central America and to the United States in search of refuge. 

Lee worries over what this migration could mean for Haiti’s future.

“There’s so much exodus that’s happening,” said Lee. “It’s a huge exodus that we don’t want because one of Haiti’s greatest resources are its people.”

As many as 18,000 Haitian migrants arrived in Panama in July, according to Panamanian authorities, most of them having trekked through the dangerous Darién Gap which separates Colombia and Panama. 

Robberies and attacks targeting migrants making their way along this route have become so commonplace that the Gap is considered “The Graveyard of Migrants”. 

For those that do make it to the United States’ southern border, a long wait to be processed greets them. Approximately 9,000 Haitian migrants were sheltering under the Del Rio International Bridge until the Biden administration on Sunday announced that they would all be deported

Scenes from the border on Monday, Sept. 20 as thousands of Haitian migrants seek asylum in the United States. Screenshot of a tweet by AJ+.

Scenes of calamity followed on Monday as border patrol agents–many of whom were riding on horseback–brandished reins as whips and forced Haitian asylum seekers back into the river. 

The Border Patrol’s response came as the White House reaffirmed its commitment to fly out as many as 10 deportation flights to Haiti per week until the camp is cleared, although press secretary Jen Psaki has since condemned some of the actions of the agents. 

For André, like many in Haiti’s large expat community, instability makes a reunion at home difficult. 

“I would go back to Haiti every time I could, but it’s been two years since I’ve been there,” said André. “I will always be Haitian… and if there is an opportunity for me to go back I will.’ 

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