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

Local community groups team up to fundraise for Cowichan Hospice Gardens

Artists for Hospice is Saturday February 29th from 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm at 444 Parkhill Terrace

Wonderettes bring the fun while belting out the hits

Four-part harmonies in Chemainus Theatre production sure to be music to your ears

‘My intuition saved my life’: Lynda Diamond finds life after death

Lynda Diamond died of a cardiac arrest, and was revived by Dr. Graham Brockley at the LCHC

Tourism and film team up to celebrate Sonic the Hedgehog première

Tourism Vancouver Island and Vancouver Island North Film Comission look to leverage film tourism

Chemainus woman sets a new standard for 106-year-olds

Active lifestyle includes a trip to Scotland in the works for May

VIDEO: Minister reports ‘modest progress’ after blockade talks with First Nation

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say Coastal GasLink does not have authority to go through their lands

Henrique scores 2 as Ducks soar past Canucks 5-1

Vancouver tumbles out of top spot in Pacific Division

Trudeau cancels Caribbean trip amid pipeline protests across Canada

Protests against Coastal GasLink have disrupted rail service

B.C. VIEWS: Inaction on pipeline protests not a viable response

Columnist Frank Bucholtz on how the Coastal GasLink pipeline dispute got so bad

PHOTOS: Top 10 memories of the 2010 Olympics

Black Press Media’s Jenna Hauck, shares some of her most memorable images of 2010 Winter Games

#FoxForFiver: Support grows in B.C. to put Terry Fox on new $5 bill

Terry Fox’ Marathon of Hope raised money for cancer research

Nanaimo-bound ferry breaks down, but another available for service

Two sailings cancelled Sunday on Tsawwassen-Duke Point route

Registration opens soon for BC 55+ Games in Richmond

2020 55+ Games have been officially scheduled for Sept. 15 to 19

Trudeau confers with cabinet ministers as rail blockades continue

The Trudeau government has been criticized for not doing more to end the blockades

Most Read