Devastation in Haiti

January 19, 2010

Students learn about the earthquake and Haiti's history, and brainstorm about how they can help Haitians now and in the long run.

To the Teacher:

"Compassion is an unstable emotion," Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others."It needs to be translated into action or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. People don't become inured to what they are shown--if that's the right way to describe what happens—because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feelings."

This is an obviously teachable moment about Haiti past and present. It is also a teachable moment for active citizenship.

The first student reading below offers an overview of the earthquake catastrophe that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, and the relief effort now underway. The second reading provides a capsule overview of Haiti's history. A brainstorming activity follows; it aims to engage students in the relief effort, to translate compassion into action before it withers. See "Teaching Social Responsibility" in the high school section of TeachableMoment for student project suggestions.


Student Reading 1: 

The earthquake and its results

The impact on Port-au-Prince

The magnitude 7 earthquake that struck Haiti late in the afternoon on January 12, 2010, "the strongest in 200 years," devastated its capital city, Port-au-Prince, and the estimated two to three million people living there. The earthquake's epicenter was only about 10 miles southwest of the city It was "very shallow, being centered just 6.2 miles below Earth's surface," Ker Than wrote for the online National Geographic.

"The Haiti earthquake was caused by the release of seismic stresses that had built up around two tectonic plates," Than wrote. "The motions of these plates create what are known as strike-slip faults, where two sections of Earth's crust are grinding past each other in opposite directions... When the stresses along the fault lines reach a certain point, they can be released in bursts of energy that cause earthquakes, although it's unclear when the energy will be discharged as a series of small quakes or as one big temblor."

The earthquake, Than reported, "put impoverished Port-au-Prince close to the most intense shaking, contributing to the scale of the devastation: Thousands are feared dead and countless buildings have collapsed, from schools and hotels to the Haitian Parliament and local UN headquarters." (, 1/13/10)

Simon Romero reported from Port-au-Prince: "Survivors strained desperately on Wednesday against the chunks of concrete that buried this city along with thousands of its residents, rich and poor, from shantytowns to the presidential palace...

"Calling the death toll 'unimaginable' as he surveyed the wreckage, Haiti's president, René Préval, said he had no idea where he would sleep. Schools, hospitals and a prison collapsed. Sixteen United Nations peacekeepers were killed and at least 140 United Nations workers were missing...

"And the poor who define this nation squatted in the streets, some hurt and bloody, many more without food and water, close to piles of covered corpses and rubble..." ("Haiti Lies in Ruins; Grim Search for Untold Dead," New York Times, 1/14/10)

Needs and problems

"Food, water, medical supplies and shelter" are Haiti's immediate needs, said former President Bill Clinton (, 1/14/10) Appointed in May 2009 by the UN as its special envoy to Haiti, Clinton has long been interested in that country and is now working fulltime on aid for its people.

Reaching Port-au-Prince with that aid presents multiple problems, including a severely damaged seaport, an overcrowded airport with a collapsed control tower and jet fuel shortages, and poor roads blocked by collapsed buildings, cars and dead bodies.

Much of the death and devastation can be traced to conditions in Haiti before the earthquake. Substandard housing, inadequate health facilities, lack of access to clean water, dilapidated roads, and other poor conditions greatly magnified the effects of the earthquake—and make recovery efforts much harder.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Some 80% of its people live under the poverty line and 54% live in abject poverty. Two-thirds of all Haitians are small-scale subsistence farmers who survive by growing their own food. (World Factbook,

The relief effort

An immense international effort to help the people of Haiti is underway with contributions of everything from heavy lifting equipment to relief supplies and medical and search and rescue teams from nations around the world. President Obama has promised $100 million, troops to provide security, and helicopter relief flights from the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson.

"You will not be forsaken. You will not be forgotten," said the president. "In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you." Obama said the financial aid will be only the first installment. "Much, much more help is on the way."


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why has the earthquake had such a catastrophic effect in Port-au-Prince?

3. In your own words, describe what caused the earthquake.

4. What are Haiti's greatest needs? Its greatest problems?


Student Reading 2: 

Haiti's history, an overview

"Enslavement, murderous colonial oppression, invasions by powerful foreign armies, grotesque homegrown tyrants, natural disasters—all you have to do is wait a while in Haiti for the next catastrophe to strike," wrote op-ed columnist Bob Herbert ("Resolve Among the Ruins," New York Times, 1/16/10)

At the time when Christopher Columbus explored the island he called Dominica, it was inhabited by the native Taíno people. Columbus claimed the island for the Spanish Crown. Many years later it would be divided between two nations, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the western part. Spanish colonists' forced the native people to assist them in their hunt for gold. Those who refused were murdered or sold into slavery.

French exploitation, the slave rebellion, and the U.S. response

After Spain ceded the western portion of the island to France, French colonists turned it into one of the richest colonies in the 18th century French empire—at the expense of African slaves brought to work on sugarcane and coffee plantations.

Says historian Madison Smartt Bell, "Haitians are the only people who conducted a successful slave revolution, beginning in 1791 and ending in 1804, after a decade of incredibly bloody warfare. They, the African slaves, imported by the French established an independent black state. ...During slavery time they had endured enormous suffering. The conditions for slaves in French Saint-Domingue, Haiti today, were so extraordinarily bad due to the labor intensive requirements of producing sugar and a couple of other factors like absentee ownership. Slaves there died like flies and had to be imported at an incredible rate to keep a stable workforce." (PBS NewsHour,

The revolutionaries renamed their independent country Haiti. The US did not recognize the new nation for fear of the effects of its revolution on slaves elsewhere--particularly in the United States. Worse yet for Haiti, Congress joined France and Spain in boycotting the nation for years, helping to cripple an economy that had been damaged badly during its 12-year war for independence.

The US did not recognize Haiti until June 5, 1862 during the Civil War. Three months later President Abraham Lincoln issued an emancipation proclamation freeing slaves in any Confederate state that did not rejoin the Union. Frederick Douglass, America's most famous ex-slave, became the US Minister and Consul General to Haiti in 1889.

Misery and foreign occupation

A combination of misrule, many coups, and interventions by foreign countries have marked Haiti's 206-year history. US Marines supported an 1888 military revolt against the government. In 1892 Germany helped to put down a reform movement. By the early 20th century the US had begun "the transformation of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean into an inland sea of the United States. In the nature of things, to use the language of diplomacy," Charles and Mary Beard wrote, "the region was a part of the American empire." (The Rise of American Civilization).

In the early 1900s, German nationals controlled most of Haiti's international commerce. The US tried to limit German influence by getting American investors to acquire Haiti's only commercial bank. Then, in 1915, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam seized control of Haiti. The US, concerned about its investments, occupied the country. President Woodrow Wilson sent a Marine force to Haiti and took control of the country for the next 19 years.

US interventions, Haiti's tyrants

A pattern emerged in US behavior toward Caribbean, Central American and Latin American states. Historian Howard Zinn recites some of the statistics: "Between 1900 and 1933, the United States intervened in Cuba four times, in Nicaragua twice, in Panama six times, in Guatemala one, in Honduras seven times. By 1924 the finances of half of the twenty Latin American states were being directed to some extent by the United States." (The People's History of the United States.)

Haiti's "grotesque homegrown tyrants," as columnist Bob Herbert put it, have included the Duvalier family, François (Papa Doc") Duvalier, President, 1957-1971, and his son Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier, 1971-1986. Father and son led a boundlessly corrupt government for 30 years that helped to run up a foreign debt that Haiti still owes. To enforce their desires, they also created the Tonton Macoutes, a private army and terrorist death squads. Both Duvaliers received US diplomatic recognition and support during the cold war for their anti-communist stance.

"No government lasts in Haiti without US approval," wrote Bill Quigley, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights. For instance, he says, "In 2001, when the US was mad at the President of Haiti, the US successfully led an effort to freeze $148 million in already-approved loans and many hundreds of millions more of potential loans from the Inter-American Development Bank to Haiti." These funds were dedicated to improving education, public health and roads. ("Part of the Suffering in Haiti is 'Made in the USA,'" www.huffingtonpost.com1/14/10)

Why are most of the 9 million Haitians today so poor?

Anthropologist Barbara Miller: "Colonialism launched environmental degradation by clearing forests. After the revolution, the new citizens carried with them the traumatic history of slavery. Now, neocolonialism and globalization are leaving new scars. For decades, the United States has played, and still plays, a powerful role in supporting conservative political regimes.

"The early colonizers did not decide to occupy Haiti because it was poor. It was colonialism and its extractive ways that have made Haiti poor today."

In Haiti today, "only 2 percent of the forest cover remains," wrote Steven Solomon, author ofWater: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization. "During storms, water rushes off barren hillsides, causing deadly mudslides, clogging streams with soil and sewage and disappearing before it can replenish Haiti's diminishing groundwater reserves. As a result, nearly half of all Haitians lack satisfactory access to clean drinking water, and more than two-thirds live without adequate sanitation." (New York Times, 1/17/10)

"Free trade" supported by the US and other major countries through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank is another reason for Haiti's poverty. "Thirty years ago Haiti imported no rice. Today Haiti imports nearly all its rice. But those world financial institutions "forced Haiti to open its markets to the world. Then the US dumped millions of tons of US subsidized rice and sugar into Haiti--undercutting their farmers and ruining Haitian agriculture...Good for US farmers, bad for Haiti." (Bill Quigley, "Why the US Owes Haiti Billions-The Briefest History,", 1/17/10)


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. For 200 years Haiti was under Spanish or French colonial rule. What were the effects of this rule on most of the Haitian people?

3. Why didn't the US recognize Haiti's independence after its successful revolt against Napoleon's France?

4. While the US is leading the relief effort today in devastated Haiti, the historical record of its domination of that nation is bleak. What are some specific examples? Why does the US bear some responsibility for Haiti's poverty? 


A brainstorming activity

Haiti's people need help desperately--immediately as well as for the foreseeable future. For most 
Americans the best way to help is to raise and send money to one or more of the many organizations that work to provide immediate relief and long-term support for the people of Haiti.

There are lots of ways that students can involve themselves in the Haiti relief effort. Engage them in a brainstorming session to solicit as many ideas as possible, listing them on the chalkboard without comment. Then focus on what students think are the best ways for them individually and collectively to take action.

Possibilities might include soliciting contributions from family members, friends and neighbors to contribute to a disaster relief or Haiti support organization the class chooses; raising money through such activities as yard and garage sales, car washing, door-to-door solicitation, raffles, potluck suppers, dances, variety shows; volunteering to work for a relief agency; making a long-term commitment to continue efforts.

Whatever the class decides, they should create an action committee to develop specific goals and a work plan. Volunteers need to commit themselves to taking specific steps. The teacher should act solely as an advisor, allowing students to manage and carry out the work themselves. The action committee, with the help of the rest of the class, should regularly assess progress toward goals and correct course as necessary.

At the end of the project, have a class assessment. How successful have students' efforts been? What problems have they faced? How did they deal with them? What lessons have they learned? What might they do differently next time?

Resources & Ideas

For a list of organizations that provide sustained support for Haiti, see the accompanying lesson for younger grades at:

The American Institute of Philanthropy ( is a charity watchdog service that help donors make informed giving decisions. The American Council for Voluntary Action is "the largest alliance of U.S.-based international development and humanitarian non-governmental organizations ( Among the media outlets listing relief groups working in Haiti are and

The U.S. State Department suggests a fast way to contribute to the International Red Cross for Haiti support: Use your cell phone to text "HAITI" to the number 90999. This will donate $10 to the Red Cross, and will appear as a charge on your wireless bill. (See for more information.)

On Friday, January 22, actor George Clooney will host a telethon to benefit Haiti (between 8 and 10 p.m. eastern time). The fundraiser will be aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CNN, BET, CW, HBO, MTV, VH1 and CMT. 

At the request of President Obama, former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton will work together to raise money for the Haitian relief effort. "Our first priority will be to raise funds to meet the urgent needs of those who are hurt, homeless and hungry and to ensure that the organizations and relief workers on the ground have the resources to do their jobs effectively...We have a chance to do things better than we once did; be a better neighbor than we once were; and help the Haitian people realize their dream for stronger, more secure nation." For more information: Clinton Bush Haiti Fund.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility.