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University Communications

Indiana University experts comment on Haiti earthquake

Jan. 13, 2010

A 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti late Tuesday afternoon, causing widespread damage and many deaths and injuries. The quake was centered about 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the capital city. Indiana University experts comment on the quake and its likely aftermath.

Topics include:

Monetary donations will help the most
An area known for seimic activity, not just hurricanes
Chaos comes as significant positive social and economic development was taking root
Language and literacy challenges facing relief workers
Poverty compounding public health challenges
The need for emotional support

Patrick Rooney

Patrick Rooney

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It's best to give money. Patrick M. Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, says Americans who want to help Haitians should contribute to established relief organizations.

"When disaster strikes Americans respond with compassion and generosity, and they undoubtedly will reach out to our neighbors in Haiti," Rooney said. "It's best to give a monetary donation to a well-respected international relief organization rather than giving food, clothing or other items. Aid groups operating in Haiti are best able to assess the immediate needs and cash donations provide them the flexibility to meet those needs most effectively."

To speak to Rooney or for other questions about the relief effort, philanthropy and nonprofits, reporters may contact Adriene Davis at the Center on Philanthropy, 317-278-8972 or Top


Chris Meyer

Michael Hamburger

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An area of known seismic activity. The earthquake appears to have occurred in an area that has been seismically quiet in recent years but that produced large quakes in the past, said Michael Hamburger, professor in the Department of Geological Sciences in the IU College of Arts and Sciences, whose research interests include seismotectonics and the dynamics of earthquakes.

"The Haiti earthquake occurred in an area of known seismic and tectonic activity: the boundary region separating the Caribbean and North America plates," Hamburger said. "This plate boundary is dominated by slow lateral motion between the two plates (at about 20 millimeters a year), with the Caribbean plate moving eastward with respect to the North America plate.

"The location and mechanism of the earthquake suggest that the event occurred due to faulting on the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault system, which lies near the southern edge of the island of Hispanola," he added. "This fault system accommodates nearly half the overall motion between the Caribbean plate and North America plate. The Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault system has not produced a major earthquake in recent decades, but there is a documented history of large earthquakes in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

"The damage associated with this earthquake is a result of the large size, its shallow depth, its proximity to a major urban area, and poor construction practices," he said.

Hamburger can be reached at 812-855-2934 or Top

Vivian Halloran

Vivian Halloran

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A chaos of a country. The news of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti comes just as significant positive social and economic development was taking root in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, says Vivian Nun Halloran, associate professor in the Department of Comparative Literature in the IU College of Arts and Sciences and a faculty member of the IU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

"The high crime and murder rate associated with the gang violence that was rampant since the departure of President Aristide had begun to improve thanks to the United Nations Peacekeeping force," Halloran said. "Often devastated by natural disasters, such as hurricanes and landslides, as well as political corruption and instability, Haiti's people now face the chaos of a country with almost no infrastructure left intact and they do so without the spiritual guidance and leadership of the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, who also perished during the quake.

"Our hearts go out to the Haitian people and their relatives in the U.S. The most immediate way concerned citizens can help those affected is to send money to international organizations which already have a presence on the ground in Haiti, like the Red Cross, which are best situated to provide immediate aid, additional resources, and logistical support."

Halloran can be reached 812-856-0500 or Top

Albert Valdman

Albert Valdman

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In addition to challenges posed by a devastated infrastructure that already was inadequate before Tuesday's earthquake, relief efforts in Haiti will be severely hampered by the country's illiteracy and language barrier -- even for aid workers traveling from French-speaking countries, said Albert Valdman, Rudy Professor Emeritus of French, Italian and Linguistics and director of the Indiana University Creole Institute.

"Outsiders, particularly those coming from French-speaking countries, even people from the French Antilles, will not be able to interact very well," Valdman said. "Clearly, anyone who comes to Haiti thinking that they'll be able to operate in French will be severely disappointed." In Port-au-Prince alone, perhaps 10 to 15 percent of the two million residents speak French and far fewer speak English. "There is that barrier, plus the fact that you cannot really communicate in writing, even if you give them things to read in Creole. Only about half the population is literate," he added.

The Creole Institute has published the most widely used learning materials for the language and bilingual Haitian Creole dictionaries for English-speaking users. Funded by a Title VI U.S. federal grant, the 30,000-word Creole-English dictionary is the most thorough and extensive one for the language. More recently, Valdman and the IU center have been working with colleagues in Haiti on a Creole-French dictionary for school children. Most of the people who use the materials produced by the Creole Institute are individuals who travel to Haiti for relief work with churches and NGOs.

Presidential elections had been scheduled for this spring in Haiti, involving about 30 candidates. "It is difficult to see how they could possibly organize fair elections under the present situation," he said.

Valdman said that it will take several years for Haiti to restore the basic level of essential services that existed before the earthquake. "Haiti has been very dependent on external aid, under normal circumstances," Valdman said. "The Haitian people are very resilient . . . If Haiti is going to recover, it's going to primarily be because of the resilience of the common people."

Valdman can be reached at 239-395 4017 or Top

Zobeida Bonilla

Zobeida Bonilla

Poverty compounds public health challenges. Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere and, as such, its ability to recover quickly from the quake is compromised, says Zobeida Bonilla, assistant professor in the Department of Applied Health Science in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at IU Bloomington. She noted that Haiti was still recovering from damage caused by four hurricanes in 2008.

"From a public health perspective, a few of the issues that are of concern include access to clean water, food security, and shelter," Bonilla said. "Water is particularly a major issue, given that this item is already compromised in the country.

"I just spoke to Ulrick Gaillard, CEO of Batey Relief Alliance and an adjunct assistant professor in the IU Department of Applied Health Science, who is working directly in Haiti and is beginning a drive to assist Haiti," Bonilla added. "He also mentioned the destruction of hospitals, adding additional strain to the structure of care and difficulties to care for the injured. Diseases such as malaria and dengue could be a problem as well. The most vulnerable groups in the community, children and the elderly, will be at increased risk in such situations."

The Batey Relief Alliance is a non-profit, private organization with a long history of working with vulnerable communities in the Dominican Republic, particularly in rural areas and communities along the border with Haiti. Bonilla and colleagues at IU have been working with the BRA to boost public health resources in this region. Bonilla can be reached at 812-855-6976 or Gaillard can be reached at 917-627-5026 or The Batey Relief Alliance's objective in response to the earthquake include: relieving immediate suffering (delivering food, medical care, clean water, and emergency supplies); repairing basic services to levels that are better than they were before; and providing economic support to women. For more information about the BRA, visit Top

Emotional support needed. The people of Haiti need not only immediate and generous material relief to recover from the earthquake. They also need emotional support and a sense that the world cares, since resources are scarce within the country and international friends are a great support right now, says David Tezil, an IU graduate student and native of Haiti.

"The most important thing is that the people of Haiti know that help is on the way," said Tezil, a graduate student in linguistics and an instructor for Haitian Creole language classes at IU Bloomington. "It's essential that Haiti should know it has a lot of friends right now, especially American friends who are nearby." This is especially true, he said, because the Haitian Presidential Palace and the United Nations Headquarters buildings in Port-au-Prince, symbols of authority and order, collapsed in the quake. "People are crying in the street. People are praying. They don't know where help is coming from," he said.

Tezil grew up in Carrefour, Haiti, part of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, and attended college in Haiti, then lived for seven years in Florida before starting at IU last fall. "I've talked to some Haitians in South Florida, and their concern is that they couldn't reach their families," he said. "There's no electricity in Port-au-Prince and no phone service. The people there don't have resources, and they are hopeless right now."

To speak to Tezil, contact Steve Hinnefeld at IU University Communications, 812-856-3488 or Top