German Haiti Expert on Aftermath of Earthquake: 'No One Knows How Many May Be Lying Under the Rubble'

Ute Braun from the German relief organization Welthungerhilfe talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the effects of the earthquake in Haiti, why casualty figures will be hard to obtain and the importance of long-term aid.

Long-term international help is needed to ensure stability in one of the world's poorest countries. Zoom
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Long-term international help is needed to ensure stability in one of the world's poorest countries.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did the earthquake hit Haiti so hard?

Ute Braun: The country has been highly unstable for years, both in its political structures and its infrastructure. Moreover, Haiti imports 50 percent of its food, even though it is an agricultural country. Haiti's poverty is mainly due to its high population density and the fact that its forests have been largely cleared. That means that the environmental catastrophes which have been hitting Haiti for years, such as floods and cyclones, have a particularly devastating effect.

Photo Gallery

20  Photos
Photo Gallery: Despair Among the Rubble

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, which was ravaged by the earthquake, is particularly overpopulated.

Braun: Yes, as many as 3 million people are thought to live in Port-au-Prince. In recent years, many people have left the countryside and moved to the city. But the urban infrastructure is designed for far fewer people. The place is simply too full. The result is that people live on steep slopes and in canyons.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean we can expect thousands of casualties as a result of the earthquake?

Braun: It will be very difficult to get a reliable total for the number of victims. Official records about numbers of inhabitants are very limited. Even before the quake, no one knew how many people live in the canyons that run through the city. Therefore no one knows how many people may be lying under the rubble.

Photo Gallery

22  Photos
Photo Gallery: An International Effort to Rescue Earthquake Victims

SPIEGEL: The political situation in Haiti is also instable. Could the earthquake trigger political chaos?

Braun: That will depend in part on how quickly the international community reacts and the extent to which it is able to help people. But I think everyone is very aware of this issue, and that is why we are seeing such a swift reaction to this disaster.

SPIEGEL: What would be the worst-case scenario for Haiti?

Braun: It could happen that Port-au-Prince becomes totally uncontrollable. It is entirely possible that the city could see looting and lawlessness, partly born out of necessity. What adds to the country's problems is the fact that it is not just the poorest people who have been hit by the earthquake but also the political institutions and groups that are theoretically responsible for responding to the disaster. I think this also comes as a great shock to the Haitian people.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What should be the priority for the relief work in Haiti?

Braun: It is absolutely essential that the aid that is already being deployed on a massive scale continues in the longer term. Relief efforts cannot be allowed to stop after four weeks, or even after four months. Right now, of course, the most important thing is to start with the essentials for survival and then in the next phase move on to reconstruction. But it is also hugely important to offer the Haitian people hope for the future. Their living conditions must be gradually improved to ensure that future disasters do not have such a devastating impact as now.

Interview conducted by Simone Utler

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About Ute Braun
Ute Warkalla / Welthungerhilfe
Ute Braun, 39, is an expert on Central America and the Caribbean at the German relief organization Welthungerhilfe (German Agro Action). She was based in Haiti from 2004 to 2007 as a regional coordinator for Welthungerhilfe.
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