The Superman Complex: With Haiti Aid, Even a Superpower Can't Move Mountains

On January 12 at 4:53 p.m., just before sunset, there was a magnitude 7.0 earthquake near Port-au-Prince in Haiti. This was followed quickly by a magnitude 5.9 aftershock at 5:00pm and a magnitude 5.8 aftershock just after midnight.

Major shocks (data from WolframAlpha):

MagnitudeTime (Haiti local/EST)Location
7.0Tue, Jan 12, 2010 04:53 pm6 mi S of Gressier, Ouest, Haiti
5.9Tue, Jan 12, 2010 05:00 pm5 mi SE of Petit Goave, Ouest, Haiti
5.8Tue, Jan 13, 2010 12:02 pm8 mi SW of Petit Goave, Ouest, Haiti

In less than a minute, the destruction was total -- a magnitude 7.0 earthquake releases the energy of a 30-megaton bomb. Most of the substantial buildings in Haiti were built with cheap, inadequate concrete, structured as very heavy roofs stacked on top of separate walls. Wonderfully suited to withstanding hurricane winds, but as stable in an earthquake as a child's building blocks.

The 5.9 "aftershock" that followed, seven minutes later, was merely another 700 kilotons. It shook the remnants of the buildings, bringing them down, grinding the rubble.

We really don't know how many died then and in the aftermath. We know that at least 70,000 dead have been counted (as of Sunday) in Port-au-Prince, but the probable death toll is many times that; we won't know for weeks or months. Very likely, Haiti's January 12 earthquake is one of the ten deadliest earthquakes in recorded history. Among the dead were many of the elite, such as it was, of the Haitian government, and diplomats and staff from the UN and many NGOs. They, it turned out, had been living under those concrete roofs.

Very much like the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, rescue and relief efforts started almost instantly. Almost as quickly, complaints began that relief was moving too slowly.

It's perfectly understandable, even noble, to want to do whatever can be done for the people of Port-au-Prince. But the United States -- and especially the U.S. military -- has done so much, so often, that the world increasingly expects that the U.S. can do anything.

So what's the truth regarding the relief efforts?