Disasters, whether man made or natural, have a dramatic, everlasting impact on people and where they live. In the blink of an eye, a disaster turns everyday normalcy into chaos, survival, and despair
Not only are property, buildings, and physical structures destroyed during a disaster, but the social relations of the people are too. People are creatures of habit, and when disasters strike, the cultural fabric is ripped apart, leading to panic, hysteria, and organized chaos.
The reason that the earthquake in Haiti (January 2010) is particularly significant is due to the lack of infrastructure. As documented in this report by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, Haiti appeared to have been making slow, but some progress prior to the earthquake.
Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. This translates into a substandard built environment. As a result of the earthquake, not only do we see buildings destroyed, but entire neighborhoods and communities. The availability of services such as medical care and emergency assistance were minimum prior to the earthquake, and we find now that they are virtually non-existent. Basic necessities such as food, water, and shelter prior to the earthquake were hard to come by: now victims are living in parks, on the streets, with no food or water. Transportation grids were haphazard at best prior to the earthquake given the lack of resources and equipment to build and sustain these networks. After the earthquake, with no equipment, the rescue operations were led simply by Haitians using their bare hands and makeshift tools to lift tons of concrete and debris in efforts of finding and freeing survivors.
Understanding the impacts of natural disasters on human populations allows us to better address more effectively and efficiently the needs of the victims. The study of collective behavior is about understanding and addressing the social and psychological dimensions of individuals and groups during times of crisis, when the social structure and normalcy are compromised.
The Haitian earthquake is what I call a complete disaster. Traditional services to meet the needs of the citizens were substandard. Because of the substandard nature, the natural disaster completed destroyed existing infrastructure, leaving survivors with no means to begin recovery.
In normal times, medical care is sought after, sometimes scarce; when the entire population all of sudden needs medical attention, it is very easy for medical services to be overwhelmed with the need of survivors. At current we are seeing medical camps being established to provide basic and emergency medical services. In cities and countries on the coast, we have seen organizations like the Coast Guard set up mobile hospitals due to the difficulty of travel and mobility in the area of devastation. In Haiti this is being done initially at the airport in Port-au-Prince, and likely will follow suit in some fashion in Bay of Port-au-Prince.
During times of normalcy law enforcement serves the purpose of keeping the peace and to provide public safety. During a complete disaster, establishing and/or assuring law and order is desirable. However, law enforcement is asked to meet a variety of community needs, and they too can become overwhelmed. In the days and weeks following a natural disaster, an increase in crime is a concern as survivors work to deal both psychologically and sociologically with the slowly improving situation.
How can emergency personnel address the needs of the families, the community, and the society that is stricken by disaster? What personal needs should be addressed? What group needs should be addressed? What has to be done to help survivors return to a sense of normalcy? Is the response of the international community quick enough? Does it last long enough?