Almost exactly eight years ago, I was driving into another urban landscape flattened by a super-quake: the Kutch region of India’s Gujarat state. Three densely-populated cities–Bhuj, Anjar and Bachau–had been turned into rubble, along with scores of villages.
I felt an overwhelming sense of deja-vu when I arrived in Port-au-Prince this week: the grim and grisly images of the mutilated and the dead, the heart-breaking tales of sundered families, the air thick with despair. And the utterly feeble efforts of an inept and corrupt government.
But not all the familiar images and emotions are terrible. As in Gujarat, I’m also seeing the super-human effort of rescue teams, the amazing patience of aid workers and the iron fortitude of those who survived this catastrophe.
As much as quake zones look alike, though, the people caught in them respond to their tragedy in different ways. The Gujaratis, unused to natural disasters of the scale they confronted in 2001, were paralyzed by its enormity. Nearly a month after the first shock, many people, especially in the countryside, remained consumed by their fear.
Haitians, far too familiar with disaster, swiftly recovered their poise: barely a week after the the quake, food stalls had reopened in many neighborhoods. There was some looting, and here and there some violence. But that was mainly in Port-au-Prince. In towns like Leogane, where perhaps 9 out of 10 buildings have either collapsed or become uninhabitable, people have already dusted themselves off and are trying to work out their next step. It may have taken nearly a week to reach Leogane, but the town started to clear rubble sooner than the capital city. Even in Port-au-Prince, I saw people smiling, sometimes laughing aloud, kids playing basketball in the shadow of the destroyed Presidential palace, and soccer in the tent cities. There were few smiles in Gujarat eight years ago.
But if Haitians have been quicker to take their tragedy in stride, it’s unlikely their country will recover as fast as Gujarat: within five years of the 2001 quake, large parts of Kutch had been rebuilt. Bhuj, Bachau and Anjar have rebounded. Nobody I’ve met in Haiti expects Port-au-Prince or Leogane or Jacmel to recover in a decade, even two. Over and over I heard people say, with resignation, “Come back in five years, and you’ll find that we haven’t yet cleared the rubble.” Nobody said that to me in Gujarat.
Gujarat had several advantages over Haiti: it is one of India’s most prosperous states, and its people have a well-deserved reputation for can-do entrepreneurship. Haiti, by contrast, is the sick man of Latin America and has little to show for private enterprise. Gujarat’s government has much to be ashamed of (not least its appalling inability to protect its minority Muslim population), but it is largely business-friendly and very stable; Haiti’s rulers are neither. It would take herculean optimism to imagine that they won’t make a hash of rebuilding their wounded nation, just as they have done after every previous calamity.