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Guest Blog: Dr. Paul Lyons on Haiti’s uphill battle

January 15, 2010

Today, Temple Cutting Edge is featuring a guest blog, written by Dr. Paul Lyons, professor of family and community medicine.  Dr. Lyons has done some work in Port au Prince and reflects on how far Haiti has come, and how far they’ll need to go in the wake of Monday’s earthquake:

Haiti is a remarkable country filled with remarkable people who face enormous challenges on a daily basis.  But no problem they have ever faced has prepared them for the scope of devastation that is likely to be the result of Monday’s earthquake.

Historically one of the poorest nations in the world, Haiti has nonetheless

Lyons (L) led students to hurricane ravaged parts of New Orleans after Katrina.

made significant strides in recent years to stabilize the government, begin economic rebuilding and redevelop infrastructure for water, electricity, health care and other basic needs.

Despite the damage from 4 hurricanes during the last hurricane season, Haiti had continued to move forward.  Now all of those gains and much more are likely to be lost in the wake of Monday’s devastating earthquake.

Immediately, the loss of life is likely to be extraordinary.  Port au Prince (the epicenter of the quake) has a population of 2+ million individuals.  The Presidential Palace (perhaps the most substantial and well built building in the country) collapsed.  The remainder of the population lives in homes that are or were considerably less strong. While it is impossible to fully gauge the scope at this point it seems possible that most buildings will have been ruined or damaged and the number of victims/casualties may number in the hundreds of thousands.

The window for rescue of trapped survivors is quite short–probably no more than a week–while Haiti’s ability to respond is very limited and access for outside resources seems to be quite limited at the moment. Haiti’s medical infrastructure is stretched  to begin with and several facilities known or thought to have been destroyed.

In the near term, the displacement of a significant proportion of the population, the lack of shelter, food, water, toilets and the presence of numerous dead bodies all threaten to escalate the toll of disease and death even among those fortunate enough to have survived.  Unlike the post Katrina response in New Orleans (and despite whatever shortcomings in our own system that highlighted) communication, transportation and energy barriers are likely to critically hamper an international response in this vital first week.

Unfortunately, the full scope of the devastation is not likely to be felt in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake but in the weeks, months and years that follow as Haiti struggles to assess, regroup and recover.  This is a calamity of the highest order in the country that is probably least prepared to cope with it.

In the short term Haiti needs our money and support. After the headlines fade, that will remain true for years to come.


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