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):

Magnitude Time (Haiti local/EST) Location
7.0 Tue, Jan 12, 2010 04:53 pm 6 mi S of Gressier, Ouest, Haiti
5.9 Tue, Jan 12, 2010 05:00 pm 5 mi SE of Petit Goave, Ouest, Haiti
5.8 Tue, Jan 13, 2010 12:02 pm 8 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?

On one hand, there are real physical limits that people don’t take into account. The nearly total destruction of Port-au-Prince included the control tower and the refueling facilities at the airport, as well as all the island’s electrical supplies. A functioning small island airport was turned into dark, rubble-strewn, uncertain runways. The port, with its cargo facilities, cranes, docks, and warehouses, was apparently even worse: docks and cranes are now tangled wreckage — some of it underwater waiting to rip out the bottom of an unwary ship.

Still, at sunrise, the Navy had a reconnaissance P-3 over the port, and the Coast Guard was near the harbor. But while rescuers and supplies were on their way, it was hard to land them. The airport went into operation fairly soon, but by midday flights had to be redirected to the Dominican Republic or simply not allowed to leave for Haiti at all. U.S. ships were on their way, but even the fastest naval ships only do about 45 miles an hour. Ships in port at Guantanamo Bay are 15 hours from Port-au-Prince. Since they have to go around both Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, ships from San Juan are more like 30 hours away. Ships in the U.S. are many days away.


On the other hand, politics has indeed slowed relief. The U.S. didn’t want to appear to be moving in to occupy Haiti, a trick that hadn’t worked well in 1994. The UN, through the UN Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH), acted with its usual asininity — there were immediate problems as the U.S. distributed all the supplies they’d brought and the UN refused to release more, apparently not wanting the U.S. to get the credit. The U.S. deferred to the UN rather than become an occupying force, the UN deferred to the Haitian government, and the Haitian government was largely nowhere to be found.

This kind of relief mission is a chess game. You can’t fly supplies in unless there is an airport to receive them, and you can’t ship them in until the port is in operation, unless there are special ships and equipment brought in — and those tend to be slow ships and come from far away. Currently the Navy thinks major relief ships will arrive by January 21.

The lesson of all this is simple, if painful. Good intentions and compassion don’t trump physical reality, and no matter how urgent the need might be, even a superpower can’t change that.



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