Haiti is vulnerable to disasters. How a community drill is trying to help with response

The northern Haiti city of Cap-Haïtien is preparing for a tsunami.

With the city’s close proximity to the ocean and the risk great of both tsunami and earthquake, students there will be participating in a seismic-risk mitigation drill on Friday. Joining them will be firefighters, police and other key institutions inside the port city of multi-story gingerbread houses, poorly constructed buildings and seaside cafes.

“The entire city will be participating,” said Garmalia Mentor-William, a medical doctor and disaster risk-management specialist who is leading the effort.

There is a special focus on students, she said, because by integrating them at a young age they can pass the message on to the wider population and involve them in the response. The region has tsunami evacuation routes, which are part of the earthquake surveillance work Haiti’s Bureau of Mines and Energy has been doing over the past 12 years. The bureau, with help from international donors, has established active-fault and hazard maps, and a seismic surveillance network. Tremors are recorded in real time by a network of seismometers that receive information broadcast via satellite from solar-powered seismic stations around the country.

Mentor-William said not only will a tsunami alert go off inside the city at about 9 a.m., allowing students and residents to assemble at different points inside the city outside of the tsunami zone, there will also be role-playing so both students and adults know how to properly evacuate should there be an actual tsunami.

READ MORE: Haiti Earthquake Topic Page

The threat of both earthquakes and tsunamis is a constant in Haiti, where the population is constantly being reminded with aftershocks. On Aug. 21, 2021, hundreds died when a powerful 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck the southern region of the country, destroying homes and leaving at least 700 dead and 2,800 injured.

Despite its higher magnitude and destruction, the quake was nowhere as devastating as the 7.0 earthquake that struck the country on Jan. 12, 2010. More than 100,000 structures crumbled and the quake nearly destroyed the capital of Port-au-Prince. According to the government, more than 300,000 were killed. Most of those deaths occurred, experts said, because people had no idea what to do. Some even ran inside buildings when the ground began to shake.

“We will be building the capacity of first responders, who will have a chance to be on the terrain to coordinate the response and take care of the victims,” said Mentor-William.

While some people play quake and tsunami victims, the Haitian Red Cross and Civil Protection will assume their emergency roles, along with local scouts, brigades, police and firefighters.

READ MORE: ‘Even if you are missing a foot, missing a hand, you must live,’ says Haiti quake survivor

This is the second year such a drill is taking place. This year it is occurring during the same week that the northern region of Haiti was devastated by an earthquake 181 years ago.

Jerry Chandler, the head of Haiti’s Civil Protection Office, said he welcomes the participation of the community in such an exercise. Last year, the office began doing outreach in the area and throughout the year it has held exercises and training focused on schools.

“The objective is to plant the seed of awareness in the kids so they not only become conscious of the problem, but so they can also spread the word around them in their families,” he said.

Haiti’s foremost earthquake expert and geologist Claude Prépetit has long warned that Haiti’s north is due for another big quake. The country, he always preaches, needs to be ready. That is why Friday’s drill is so important, said Mentor-William. With two earthquake fault lines running through Haiti, the country sits on a powder keg.

“Most of the schools are not built for schooling and are private houses, which means they are unsafe for kids,” she said. “It is highly likely that most of them will collapse.”