In 2010, an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti. More recently, Mexico was hit with an magnitude 8.1 quake.

10 years after, Michaelle Jean laments flawed response to devastating Haiti quake

Haiti faced monumental challenges, with 60 per cent of the country’s civil servants perished in the quake

Former governor general Michaelle Jean vividly remembers the shock of seeing the country of her birth after it was hit by a catastrophic earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010.

“It was as if an atomic bomb had been dropped on Haiti,” Jean said in an interview with The Canadian Press this week.

Ten years later, she is forced to conclude that the massive humanitarian aid effort that followed was a missed opportunity and a “failure for the international community.”

Jean was in her office at Rideau Hall in Ottawa when her aide-de-camp rushed in with the news: a devastating earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale had just rocked Haiti.

“I felt anxiety, shock, I feared the worst but also felt an urgency to act,” she recalled.

She immediately called the Canadian ambassador in Haiti, who was only reachable by satellite phone.

In an anguished voice, he told her of an “unimaginable catastrophe” — entire neighbourhoods under rubble and fears that thousands could be dead.

In the end, that initial estimate was tragically far from the mark: between 200,000 and 300,000 people were killed, at least another 300,000 were injured and more than one million Haitians were left homeless.

As titular commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, the governor general contacted defence headquarters, and a Hercules plane was loaded with supplies. Normally under international conventions, a request for aid must come from the affected country, but the Canadian ambassador in Haiti said it would be pointless to wait.

ON THE GROUND IN HAITI: Making community connections

“He said, ’We can’t reach the president. We don’t even know who is alive,’ ” she recalled, so the Canadian government approved the plane’s departure.

Reports came in of towns that had been almost completely levelled. Jacmel, the town in the south of Haiti where Jean grew up, suffered tremendous destruction.

In Haiti as in Canada, people desperately searched for signs of life from loved ones. “Every minute became unbearable,” she said. And then the names of the dead and missing emerged, one by one. “One day I found myself alone in my office, and I screamed in sorrow,” she said.

Jean decided to visit the country, timing her trip to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8, because she considers women to be particularly vulnerable in disaster situations.

“The level of suffering, of misery, was immense,” she said. “But there was also this pride, this desire to believe that things are going to get better and this hope.”

She said she was struck by Haitian women who welcomed her by singing. “What was in place in Haiti was resistance,” she said, adding that she does not like the word “resilience” and its suggestion of a certain acceptance of one’s situation.

The challenge facing Haiti was monumental, she said, noting that 60 per cent of the country’s civil servants perished in the earthquake. Hiring replacements was difficult as the state struggled to compete with international organizations that pay better.

Jean said the government quickly found itself overwhelmed, unable to absorb all the offers of help.

She has harsh words for the non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, that arrived en masse after the disaster.

“The organizations are there each for themselves, for their own interests, disconnected from Haitian NGOs and showing no willingness to work with them,” she said. She said she tried to encourage the foreign organizations to work with Haitian partners but got nowhere.

She said there was necessary emergency assistance, and some initiatives yielded results. But in the end the impact of the international NGOs was not lasting. She now considers it a textbook example of “the bankruptcy of humanitarian aid.”

When she visited the devastated country as governor general, Jean told Haitians: “You are not alone.”

Ten years later, she acknowledges the Haitian people feel alone, even betrayed. “People hoped that from this great misfortune a better life would come,” she said. ”For the international community, there is an acknowledgment of serious failure.”

Stephanie Marin, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cluculz Lake fire leads to death of occupant

RCMP said mobile home was engulfed in fire when they arrived on scene

Disrespectful that Horgan won’t meet during northern B.C. tour: hereditary chief

Na’moks said he was frustrated Horgan didn’t meet with the chiefs

BC Green Party leader visits Wet’suwet’en camps at heart of pipeline conflict

Adam Olsen calls for better relationship between Canada and First Nations

Premier Horgan announces business plan approval for new hospital in Fort St. James

The new hospital in the district is aimed to be open to patients by 2024

Horgan cancels event in Fraser Lake due to security concerns, says mayor

The premier will still be visiting the district, but the location and day will not be made public

‘Epic sky palace’: B.C. businesses help create dream treehouse for boy recovering from cancer

‘It was kind of a bright shining beacon at the end of a horrible, dark tunnel’

B.C. teacher suspended for poking student in stomach, pulling another’s ponytail

Teacher also swore in classroom, used Facebook to contact students

Larry Walker Jr. and Sr. keeping expectations low for hall-of-fame induction

Walker needs 75 percent of votes in order to be inducted into Cooperstown

Gene Simmons to launch new Titans of Rock music festival in Grand Forks

The rock legend has partnered with Chuck Varabioff to run Titans of Rock in Grand Forks

VIDEO: 17 Husky pups rescued from Interior B.C. property find new homes

The BC SPCA caught the moment on video the last puppy, Uki, met his owners

U.S. officials confirm first case of Wuhan coronavirus near Seattle

The U.S. is the fifth country to report seeing the illness

Housing program to aid Indigenous people travelling far for medical care in northern B.C.

B.C. government launches temporary housing program in Prince George, Fort St. John

Most Read