The Law of Disaster and Displacement in Haiti (Part I)

This is the first in a three-part series about disaster and displacement in Haiti.  Read the rest of the series: Part II, Part III

Port-au-Prince is Haiti’s capital and most populous city, with a metropolitan population of nearly 2.5 million.  On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 Mw earthquake struck 25 kilometers southwest of the city.  An additional 52 aftershocks with a magnitude of at least 4.5 followed.  The island of Hispaniola – which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic – is no stranger to extreme natural events like earthquakes and tropical cyclones, but the 2010 earthquake was unprecedented in its destructive impact.   Death toll estimates range from 100,000 - 300,000.   Critical infrastructure designed to respond to disasters (e.g., hospitals, roads, seaports, airports, communication systems) was destroyed.   Many of the city's other buildings - including private residences, government institutions, and business centers - were likewise completely or functionally destroyed.  In sum, Haiti’s largest city and the epicenter of government and economic activity was ground to a halt.

While recovering and respectfully disposing of the deceased proved trying, responding to the needs of the living became a challenge of epic proportions.  The United States Agency for International Development estimates that 1.5 million people were displaced into some 1,500 camps.  Many others forced to leave their homes sought refuge with family in other parts of the country.  And by almost all accounts, the response to displacement was inadequate.  A year after the earthquake 500,000 Haitians were still living in camps, and although the rough official number in 2014 was ‘only’ 100,000, the effect of displacement is persistent and hard to fully discern in a city where camps can be hard to distinguish from slums.  A 2014 survey found that 74% of families forced to leave their homes in 2010 still consider themselves displaced, even though they no longer live in displacement camps.   Meanwhile, life in the camps was ill-conceived: many had no electricity, clean water, sanitation facilities, or protection from the elements.  Sexual, domestic, and gang violence was common, and a cholera outbreak (likely introduced by foreign aid workers) exacerbated a fragile public health environment. 

The inadequacy of the response to displacement has many intertwined roots, the totality of which is still being uncovered.  One of the most distressing concerns for Haiti and the international community, however, was (and continues to be) the weak legal framework designed to mitigate and respond to extreme natural events.  Domestically, undeveloped and unenforced building codes allowed construction to take place in high-risk areas, and even in lower-risk areas common buildings were not designed with resiliency in mind.  Once destroyed, displacement was exacerbated by a land tenure scheme that was incapable of documenting legal title to property, frustrating efforts to return to and rebuild homes.  Regionally, the Dominican Republic was not prepared to deal with the influx of immigration from Haiti, and recent legal reforms only make it more difficult for Haitian migrants to seek aid from their neighbor.  Internationally, foreign aid agencies, NGOs, and private contractors poured into Haiti after the earthquake without a legal mechanism in place to coordinate displacement relief or ensure accountability.  Foreign institutions set up camps for the displaced, providing shelters and perhaps other basic services, but did not take full governance responsibility (eschewing, for example, responsibility for personal protection).  Combined, these gaps in the legal framework contributed to mass displacement following the earthquake, and continue to frustrate reintegration of displaced populations.

Law and policy have a central role to play in building community resilience to climate change and natural disasters.  A community that can withstand a disaster in the first place will have little to no problem with displacement.  Water resource laws, for example, allow a region to sustainably and equitably respond to water shortages during drought, insurance laws protect vulnerable communities from loss in high-risk floodplains, and land use laws can reduce development in the wildland-urban interface and mitigate wildfire risk.  In the context of earthquake readiness, resilience can be fostered through property laws such as zoning and building codes.  Zoning ordinances can restrict development in areas (such as steep slopes) where the risk of building collapse is exceedingly high, while building codes ensure that new construction incorporates known practices that reduce seismic vulnerabilities, or require existing structures to be retrofitted.  Unfortunately, Haiti did not have building codes in place when the earthquake struck.  Buildings were constructed on steep slopes with weak foundations and insufficient support structures, and there was little to no development control.  Collapse of residential structures may not be surprising considering poverty levels in Haiti, but even hospitals, schools, and government buildings did not meet reasonable standards of earthquake readiness.  After the earthquake Haiti adopted international codes to fill the gap, but low levels of capacity in the labor force, weak enforcement mechanisms, and opaque bureaucracy has limited the degree to which standards and best practices are built into new construction.  Unfortunately, widespread building collapse and displacement may once again plague Port-au-Prince if another disaster strikes.