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Haiti Earthquake Brings Devastation and Little Hope for Future Preparation

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Podcast featuring Glynn CoskerManaging Editor, Edge and
Dr. Chris ReynoldsDean, Vice President of Academic Outreach and Program Development, American Military University

In August 2021, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti causing massive and widespread destruction. Shortly after the earthquake struck, a tropical depression swept through the country causing further devastation and impeding rescue and recovery efforts. In this episode, Glynn Cosker talks to AMU’s Dr. Chris Reynolds about his experience responding directly to the 2010 earthquake and his perspective on the challenges Haiti faces. Learn how limited infrastructure, rampant governmental corruption including a recent coup and the assassination of Haiti’s president, along with criminal violence have all contributed to Haiti’s inability to prepare or respond to disasters and its reliance on foreign aid.

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Glynn Cosker: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I’m Glynn Cosker, your host, and joining me today is Dr. Christopher Reynolds, American Military University’s Dean and Vice President of Academic Outreach and Program Development. Chris is a certified emergency manager through IAEM, and his career in emergency and disaster management spans more than three decades, and includes on-the-ground responses to the Oklahoma City Bombing, various major hurricanes over the years, including Andrew and Katrina, and various earthquake response and recovery operations. How are you today, Dr. Reynolds?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Oh, I’m doing fine, Glynn. How about yourself?

Glynn Cosker: I’m doing okay. And you and I are both doing a lot better than the unfortunate people who are dealing with the situation in Haiti right now. Of course, there was a major earthquake there in 2010, which you were present for, at least for the recovery efforts. And we’ve had a similar event this past Saturday.

Now, the one in 2010 was very devastating, and looking at the reports that are coming in since Saturday in Haiti, this one looks not quite as bad, but there’s no “good” earthquake. If you were down there, and you had just arrived, and you were part of the rescue team, like you were in 2010, what do you think those emergency personnel are doing first when this quake struck?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, what’s unique about any disaster operation, particularly for responders in Haiti is certainly no different than any other area that may be disaster stricken, is that responders are helping their fellow citizens and their people within their communities when they themselves have been impacted by the earthquake. And they themselves may have family members, or coworkers, or friends who are also impacted. So I think the responders are really stunned right now.

And, of course, in any operation, the clock essentially starts ticking in terms of survivability post-disaster. So responders are in the rumble, they’re out trying to find void spaces where perhaps people may have survived. I know that they have assistance down there helping them. I know that USAID is assisting them. And I think that right now, they’re still in a rescue operation. I don’t think they’ve really gotten into recovery mode yet. I think that they’re still doing rescue operations.

Glynn Cosker: Right. And of course, Haiti is sort of in the crosshairs of various disasters that could hit them. I mean, over the years, they’ve had hurricanes, significant hurricanes. They’ve had multiple earthquakes, including the one this past Saturday. Of course, we mentioned the one in 2010. There’s been major earthquakes prior to that as well. So it’s sort of a triple threat as far as disasters go for Haiti.

And then when you add in there’s gang violence and other infrastructure problems, it’s a perfect storm for a catastrophe to happen. Did you experience that when you were down there in 2010? Did you get a sense that as much as the rescue was happening, there needs to be some sort of proactive preparation for future earthquakes and such, building codes, and that kind of thing?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: One thing that we have to realize particularly with Haiti is that we’re talking about a country who’s been devastated over decades through natural disaster, through political unrest, and the population down there has essentially been forced to live in never-ending disasters or political unrest.

So it’s a country that has a very poor infrastructure. When I was there, basic things that we in the United States take for granted, such as clean water, sanitary facilities, food, fuel, the basic tenents of life are very hard to come by.

So that being the case, really have a consistent effort down there through USAID, through other organizations, through the World Health Organization, that are helping a lot of these communities. So when the earthquake hit, and then of course we had the tropical storm that came over and hit them on top of that, again, the one, two punch, it’s utter devastation.

And people really can’t appreciate just how horrible it is for those people that live there to have to deal with this, and just accept that we’re a disaster country, and they’re really at the beck and call of any aid organization that can come and assist them.

For example, not long after the earthquake, the US Southern Command established Joint Task Force-Haiti, and it conducted US operations in support of the USAID led foreign disaster assistance mission. So we were there right away, but even with a country as great as the United States, and our ability for logistics and for response, Haiti is still suffering. It’s just horrible.

Glynn Cosker: It really is. And we can do some good things, obviously. I mean, the United States has dealt with numerous earthquakes over the years. But what kind of on the ground rescue personnel would be there? You mentioned USAID. What different groups of people are coordinating down there? I imagine there is some local authorities as well, but for the most part, they need foreign aid, correct?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Oh, yes. Definitely need foreign aid, and what people don’t realize too is that much of the foreign aid that was mobilized after the 2010 earthquake, in many respects are still there. They’re still down there in one way or another assisting and helping. So in terms of capabilities, and again, I went back to you on Southern Command, right away they had two cutters head there. So they’ve got the personnel on the site, again, through USAID, through their coordination efforts. I think that greater assistance will come.

In terms of what’s there now, they have the Haitian nationals there that do their normal day-to-day emergency operations, and they also have US service members there to help them. They’ve got the personnel, what they don’t have is they don’t have a lot of the equipment that’s probably still coming inbound. They don’t have, again, the basic things that I spoke about a little while ago. They are limited in infrastructure. They are limited in any of the items we take for granted, not only is the population impacted, but so too are the rescuers.

Glynn Cosker: Now, you mentioned the rescuers, they’ve got one job: rescuing people. But we’re almost a week from when this quake struck, which was a 7.2 magnitude quake, by the way. Is there hope for people finding survivors amongst that ruble even a week on?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Oh, sure. Sure there are.

Glynn Cosker: What are some of the variables that have to be in place for somebody to survive for longer than a few days?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, in terms of the variables, there are many of them. Whatever the trapped individual, whatever the person who may be in a void space in a collapse, what is their personal health? How old are they? Were they hydrated prior to the collapse? Did they just finish a meal? I mean, there are a number of variables.

In terms of the rescue side of it, what is the temperature? What’s the humidity? Are they able to get air? Is there oxygen around them in that void space? There are just innumerable type of variables.

What rescuers will do, and by the way, one of the things that happened right after the earthquake is that USAID also included an expert from what’s called the Urban Search and Rescue Team, which here in the United States, a lot of folks probably are aware who they are. They’re the FEMA experts that come in and do the search and rescue operations.

So we have that expert down there helping assist with this. But what he’s showing responders, and many of whom already know what to do, they have acoustical equipment that can listen. They have very small cameras on robotics are on the end of a fiber optic cable that they can slide into void spaces to see if they find somebody.

The acoustic device if they hear somebody, they can then focus on that area to do the dig out and do the rescue operation. They have rescue dogs that can come down and sniff, of course, for people, and when it comes to the recovery side, they also have cadaver dogs that can come in and find the bodies. We’re only what? Four or five days out from this event? So absolutely there are still people that could be rescued, without any doubt. And that is where the efforts are focused.

Glynn Cosker: Well, I certainly hope that they do find someone at this point. It would be a miracle, and it would be a welcome bit of good news for that stricken nation. And like I said earlier, they’ve had so many different disasters over the years. Do you feel that they’re better prepared for hurricanes versus earthquakes? And if so, I mean, should they be looking at better building codes, better construction quality for the buildings?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: That’s really hard to say, Glynn. I can tell you having been there myself, being down there, and I wouldn’t say I was living there, but I was there for an extended period of time. Much like I said about the infrastructure that is dilapidated or does not exist, we have to remember that building codes really don’t exist in Haiti like they do in the United States. Nothing is built here that’s not hurricane, wind resistant, or that doesn’t have rated fire partitions and firewalls.

Haiti, that really isn’t the case. I mean, there may be buildings down there that would come up to some of the US codes, but by and large, no. They don’t have the building codes there. In fact, I would venture to say that the government is not capable. Think back, Glynn. We had a coup there not long ago, several weeks ago, that involved of course the murder of their president. So the ability to governance I don’t think exists. And I think that what happens in Haiti is based on the area by which the community lives.

For example, Port-au-Prince being the capital, of course, dictates what goes on in the country, but I also think that a lot of the smaller communities self-govern. And I really don’t think that they’re too reliant on the Haitian federal government to come in and assist.

This is why USAID, this is why what we call non-governmental organizations or NGOs could come in and essentially bring their own infrastructure with them, bring their own airlift capability to move casualties out of Haiti, maybe to Santa Domingo or maybe Puerto Rico, or even the continental United States. The situation there is truly dire.

Glynn Cosker: It really is. And I can’t even begin to imagine what the people are going through. And it sort of puts into perspective some of the things that we grumble about in the United States, and we hear this sort of thing, it’s just very humbling and very distressing. It’s also very distressing, of course, on the people who are down there assisting in the rescue effort. And you were down there, obviously in 2010.

Do you remember what kept you going when you were down there, thinking back, your personal experience? You must’ve had a way of dealing with what you were seeing, and what you were doing, but what were your personal recollections of what went on down there?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, as any professional will tell you if they’re involved in emergency services, or they’re involved in any type of community facing career field, you focus on the mission. That’s where your efforts go is on the mission, is on the search, on the rescue, on the evacuation. They’re all very critical. You deal with it day by day, like any emergency services position or job, no matter where on the world it may be.

But one thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that, and this is true for any emergency responder, any of them: law enforcement, fire and rescue, paramedic, any of the emergency services. You carry a little piece of that back home with you. It’s always there with you to some degree.

And that’s why it’s so critically important that responders that deal with this day to day, not only in Haiti, but here in the United States, or even anywhere in the world, remember that they’re human, and they can’t bury the emotion. They’ve got to be able to vent it, and talk about it, and get it out, because responders are like anyone else. What we say is that the stress that one brings back, or the stress that one has based on an incident or a situation, that it’s a normal reaction to an abnormal set of circumstances, and it’s out of the ordinary.

This time around, particularly down in Haiti, again going back to the infrastructure and the building codes, is that they’re also dealing with a real criminal element down there. They’ve got violence. They got road blockages. There are many other security concerns that essentially have rendered the southern peninsula of Haiti largely inaccessible.

The relief agencies can’t even get down there, and so they’re find themselves actually negotiating with these criminal gangs, so that they can get aid flow down to the southern part of the country. That’s another element here in the United States. We really don’t worry about those things. We don’t think about those things.

Imagine if in your community you had a large fire, or a Hazmat incident, or you name the incident, and roads were blocked so that responders couldn’t get there to do the rescue operation, or extinguish the fire, or begin the search and rescue from debris. These are things here that, again, I don’t want to say we take for granted, but we don’t think about it, because it’s antithetical to what we even think of. But in Haiti, that’s what they’re dealing with. And like I said, I’ll come back to this again, Glynn, it’s just a dire situation down there.

Glynn Cosker: It really is. And like you said, it’s hard for us to imagine. I mean, if there was an earthquake, God forbid, in the US, a strong one, the idea of having to deal with gangs to get the relief to the people is just an outrageous thought. I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s like.

You’ve been on the ground at rescue efforts for hurricanes, as well as earthquakes, and the Oklahoma City Bombing, and many others. What can they do to make the next earthquake more survivable? Because there’s going to be another earthquake. Haiti is sitting on a major fault line, and like I said earlier, they’ve had numerous earthquakes over the years, significant ones. So what can they do down there to make the next earthquake survivable or more survivable?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Great question. Glynn, we have in emergency management what we call mitigation efforts. So in this country, we’re always in a mitigation mode, where we’re always planning, and we’re always forecasting and preparing. I think that that model in Haiti is something that would help, but again, coming back to the reality of the facts is that the lack of infrastructure, the lack of in-country organic coordination efforts in the capabilities and abilities, it’s difficult to do. That’s why we’re helping.

Again, for example, this is not necessarily part of that mitigation effort I talked about, but shortly after the earthquake, Urban Search and Rescue Team. And let me explain what that is to folks. An Urban Search and Rescue Team is a FEMA-funded team that includes disaster, rescue, planning, operations, administrative capabilities to essentially come into a disaster area, and set up operations, and conduct search and rescue, and conduct the recovery operations after the disaster, which they then hand off and redeploy back to the United States.

We have our Urban Search and Rescue Team out of Fairfax, Virginia is actually down there right now. They came in on the 15th. That team in itself, heck, they carry 52,000 pounds of equipment, specialized tools, which includes all the things to do the rescue operation.

Haiti is not capable, organically, within the country to provide that capability. So when you talk mitigation of disaster, and you have personnel equipment to help after disaster occurs, it has to come from outside.

Colombia, the nation of Colombia has an Urban Search and Rescue Team there too. So it’s truly a global effort. So in terms of what the country can do itself is provide better building codes, build the infrastructure, assure that they have the capability of taking care of their citizens day to day, so that when a disaster strikes, they can deal with it effectively.

Glynn Cosker: Right. And that’s probably a long time coming, unfortunately. It’s not something that they can fix overnight, but we can help. And you mentioned the professionals that have helped. Obviously, Fairfax County was one department that you mentioned, and there’s numerous entities that are down there helping, but what can the citizens do? What can our listeners do? Is there anything they can do to help with the effort?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: People can donate money is the most effective thing to do. Cash contributions to a humanitarian organization that are conducting relief operations. The Red Cross, World Health Organization are two of the biggest ones. Salvation Army is down there helping, and there are also non-denominational, faith-based organizations that are down there helping.

There are a number of things they can do, and the money truly helps. It’s not something that goes into some giant fund no one ever sees. These organizations are down there right now with boots on the ground doing the search and rescue. And any help in terms of monetary support that citizens can provide will certainly help sustain those responders, and sustain those people that are down there helping.

Glynn Cosker: Of course, and also helping your local emergency personnel. It trickles down in the long run to the rescue efforts overseas as well.

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Right. Absolutely. You’re so right.

Glynn Cosker: Now, they’ve just had a tropical depression pass over there too, which brought some rainfall, of course. How does that hinder the effort? It must hinder it significantly if people are trying to clear rubble, get people to a safe place, when all of a sudden the tropical depression comes through. What’s that like?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Oh, it’s awful. Awful. I’ve been in Haiti, not when a tropical storm hits, but I’ve been in Haiti when there’s a lot of rain, and it’s not pleasant. Folks that don’t have an understanding of the geography or even the demographics of some of the areas in Haiti, most of the mountains and mountain sides have been clear-cut. There’s no forestation. There is no anything that would stop or that would cease a slide from occurring. What heavy rain does is it brings the threat of mudslides, and that’s what’s the most dangerous thing are mudslides that may happen, because there’s nothing to stop them.

So when a mudslide comes down a hill or a mountain, it essentially buries the area, and Haiti is not flat. Haiti is mountainous, it’s hilly. So any of the valleys where a lot of people reside and live, flood. So you have the potential for mudslides, flash floods, and any sanitary areas that may be where they’ve contained human waste, or they’ve contained trash and garbage, all has the threat of being overrun with water and flowing into whatever main water supplies there are there. So the impact of tropical storm or hurricane, in addition to the earthquake is, I hate to say this, but it’s biblical. I mean, it’s almost like Armageddon, end-of-time kind of things that those poor people are enduring down there. So a big impact.

Glynn Cosker: It’s hard to imagine, and I feel so sorry for everybody down there. And it’s earthquakes, hurricanes, gang violence, a coup this year, assassination of the president. Like I said earlier, it kind of puts all of our troubles into a perspective, because they are suffering so much.

So, proactively, and like you mentioned about the mitigation efforts, hopefully they can find a way to build buildings that are structurally safe from hurricanes and earthquakes, but particularly earthquakes, because they cause the most damage.

So my guest today has been Dr. Christopher Reynolds. Chris, it’s always a pleasure to speak to you. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Oh, you’re so welcome. I really enjoyed it, Glynn. I always enjoy talking to you and talking about important things that are going on in our nation and in the world.

Glynn Cosker: Thank you, Chris. And I always enjoy talking to you as well. My name is Glynn Cosker. Thank you for listening, and please join us for the next podcast.

Glynn Cosker is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. In addition to his background in journalism, corporate writing, web and content development, Glynn served as Vice Consul in the Consular Section of the British Embassy located in Washington, D.C. Glynn is located in New England.

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