VCU homeland security and emergency preparedness professor says pre-earthquake challenges must be addressed in Haiti’s long-term recovery

Life in Haiti was difficult long before a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook the Caribbean country on Jan. 12, and those pre-earthquake challenges must be addressed as part of long-term recovery efforts, according to Jason Levy, Ph.D., associate professor of homeland security and emergency preparedness in Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.


“Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with a life expectancy of 52 years and 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line,” Levy said. “The country was already struggling economically and in 30 seconds on January 12th, more than 60 percent of their gross domestic product evaporated. So you can imagine the tremendous challenges they face.”


The earthquake killed tens of thousands of people and caused catastrophic damage in and around the capital city of Port-au-Prince, where most of the country’s economy is centered.


Levy said there are four phases to any emergency management situation: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. And while the world is currently focused on taking care of immediate needs such as food, water, shelter and health care, Levy fears interest, attention and financial support will fade when Haiti is no longer front-page news.


“There’s only a short window of opportunity to focus on helping Haiti build a sustainable long-term future because as soon as the cameras leave, the front page headlines are gone and the pundits and the talking heads are finished, people won’t be thinking about Haiti,” Levy said. “I’m thinking that this is a moral imperative, and if we can keep the international community focused on Haiti, it is really possible to renew Haitian society.”


Levy said Haiti’s recovery will take at least a decade and could cost billions.


Levy said lessons learned from other recent international disasters -- the 2003 Bam earthquake in Iran, the Boxing Day Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 and earthquakes in Pakistan in 2005 -- will help in Haiti’s long-term recovery. Those lessons include meeting community needs like access to safe water, sustainable livelihoods, education and health care.


“There are three key lessons to help a country like Haiti recover,” Levy said. One is that we have to take an all-hazards approach, make sure that we’re preparing a nation like Haiti for health-related disasters in addition to storms and food-related issues. Second, we have to make sure that we are rebuilding communities so that they have sustainable livelihoods to ensure that people aren’t living in flood plains, to make sure that we are promoting jobs where people live; and third, we have to take a long-term approach.” 


Levy has incorporated discussions about the Haiti earthquake and recovery into his classes as students learn about strategic planning and risk assessment. He expects Haiti’s challenges and recovery efforts will be incorporated into his lesson plans for years to come.