Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010

Haiti and India: Different Responses to Two Very Different Deadly Quakes

Pancaked buildings, the sickly-sweet smell of rotting human flesh, the lingering terror of aftershocks, the stupefaction of survivors ... Journalists are among only a cursed few people — along with relief workers — who get to witness the horrors of a monster earthquake more than once.

Almost exactly eight years ago, I was driving into another urban landscape that had been 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 déjà vu when I arrived in Port-au-Prince this week: the grim and grisly images of the mutilated and the dead, the heartbreaking 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 superhuman effort of rescue teams, the amazing patience of aid workers and the iron fortitude of those who survived this catastrophe.

There's the sense of awe that accompanies every encounter with a real-life hero — like the doctors who save hundreds of lives every day. There's the spiritual uplift from the sight of men and women from scores of nations gathering to help a stricken land. And there's the exultation that comes with news of a miraculous survival, like the 24-year-old man who was pulled from the rubble of a hotel on Jan. 24.

And there is, ultimately, redeeming pride in humankind's ability to overcome a calamity, even this one.

As much as quake zones can look alike, though, the people caught in them respond to their tragedy in different ways. The Gujaratis, unused to a natural disaster of the scale they confronted in 2001, were paralyzed by its enormity. Nearly a month after the first shock, many people, especially those in the countryside, remained consumed by fear.

Haitians, far too familiar with disaster, swiftly recovered their poise. Barely a week after 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 did. Even in Port-au-Prince, I saw people smiling, sometimes laughing, kids playing basketball in the shadow of the destroyed National 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 that their country will recover as fast as Gujarat did: within five years of the 2001 quake, large parts of Kutch were rebuilt. Bhuj, Bachau and Anjar 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 hear 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 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.

But such long-term considerations don't occupy the minds of the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who sleep in tent cities every night. Their concerns are more immediate: will there be another aftershock tonight? Where to get food tomorrow? How to find out whether friends and relatives have survived? Eight years ago and half a world away, those were exactly the questions Gujaratis were asking themselves as they dozed off in the tent cities of Bhuj, Bachau and Anjar.

Read more in the new TIME book Earthquake Haiti: Tragedy and Hope and support TIME's Haiti relief efforts.