Haiti's biggest humanitarian challenge since Second World War
You see it first and best from the air. Translucent, deep blue specks, as yet unfaded by the remorseless sun, they stand out against the turquoise seawater and the beige of the dry landscape.
As the aircraft descends, homing in on the Port-au-Prince runway, the specks become steadily larger, and their various shapes – squares the size of garden huts, triangles, like tents – become clear. These are the UN-issued tarpaulins: the emergency shelter from sun and rain that are the standard measure of the scale of a natural disaster. Here they are everywhere yet everyone needs another and many have none.
With an estimated 1.3 million homeless, 400,000 injured and the death toll still oscillating between 230,000 and 305,000, Haiti’s January 12th earthquake is the biggest natural disaster anywhere this century, eclipsing even the Asian tsunami five years ago.
And everyone, from the largest, best-funded UN agency to the smallest private relief group, believes that the legacy of this earthquake presents the greatest humanitarian challenge since the end of World War II.
Unlike the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which hit limited areas of mostly medium-income states, January’s earthquake in Haiti hit the capital city of one country – the poorest in the Americas.
In doing so, it tore the heart out of this highly centralised state – home to more than 3 million people – and took with it whatever limited capacity its government had to respond. The National Palace and almost every ministry collapsed. Some 18% of the country’s civil servants were killed.