Haiti Earthquake: Hundreds of Thousands Dead?

I haven’t written previously about the news of the horrific earthquake that has leveled Haiti’s capital because, really, what is there to say? But a CNN Breaking News alert that, “Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Haiti’s earthquake, the prime minister told CNN today” was staggering enough to prompt a mention.

The reality, it would seem, is that we have no idea how many are dead.

But Haiti’s half of Hispaniola is home to a little more than 10 million people, who are densely packed into the sort of unsafe buildings that you get in the poorest country in the hemisphere. And we know that the damage was severe enough that even the palace has been destroyed.

The number is certainly well into the thousands. Whether it’s many multiples of that or hundreds of multiples, we may never know.

Haitians are piling bodies along the devastated streets of their capital after a powerful earthquake flattened the president’s palace and the main prison, the cathedral, hospitals, schools and thousands of homes. Untold numbers are still trapped.

President Rene Preval says he believes thousands of people are dead even as other officials give much higher estimates — though they were based on the extent of the destruction rather than firm counts of the dead.

His prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, tells CNN: “I believe we are well over 100,000,” while leading senator Youri Latortue tells The Associated Press that 500,000 could be dead. Both admit they have no way of knowing.

The tendency during natural disasters — whether the Tsunami in Indonesia or Hurricane Katrina — is vast overestimation of the death toll in the early going. Whether that’s an attempt to quickly get past the sympathy gap and get people to see action as urgent or whether it’s grandstanding — or perhaps some combination — I don’t know.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jeff says:

    having been to Haiti many years ago and assuming conditions have not improved a large earthquake could easily flatten a good portion of the country and destroy what little infrastructure they had. It may have killed tens of thousands but what is certain is that hundreds of thousands will be at risk of death over the next few weeks and months.
    This may require a forceful military intervention to keep it from turning into Somalia and another mad max nightmare of armed gangs taking the food and medicine at gunpoint as soon as it arrives.

  2. Newsprism says:

    Estimates of casualties are a natural and worthwhild reaction as we try to respond to this tragedy. I hope all Americans will resist the temptation to politicize and, instead, will do whatever they can to help.

    God bless the victims and the survivors.

  3. Ugh says:

    Whether that’s an attempt to quickly get past the sympathy gap and get people to see action as urgent or whether it’s grandstanding

    There’s also the tendency of the media to constantly repeat the biggest number they can get anyone with some semblance of authority or knowledge to say, so that’s the one we remember.

  4. rodney dill says:

    I started looking for the 2004 tsunami reporting of casualties over time. I can find a lot of material on the tsunami, but not how the casualty estimates changed over time. It’s probably there, I just haven’t fine tuned the right search yet.

  5. Triumph says:

    Whether that’s an attempt to quickly get past the sympathy gap and get people to see action as urgent or whether it’s grandstanding — or perhaps some combination — I don’t know.

    So you are saying that the Haiti PM is acting in a decidedly calculating manner–he’s either purposely inflating the numbers to attract help OR he’s “grandstanding.”

    My sense is that this is like Katrina–but much worse. What has happened is beyond the scope of imagination. As the article suggests, Preval and Bellerive are both unsure of the number, but obviously have never seen such devastation. In my estimation these guys are trying to make sense of the extent of the devastation–which, because of the traumatic and chaotic nature of the event, makes this extremely difficult.

    The idea that they are cool calculators is a bit misplaced.

  6. James Joyner says:

    In my estimation these guys are trying to make sense of the extent of the devastation–which, because of the traumatic and chaotic nature of the event, makes this extremely difficult.

    The idea that they are cool calculators is a bit misplaced.

    There’s an agency problem here. I think it’s mostly the cable news networks that have the incentive to hype the numbers. I wouldn’t put it past politicians to join in to increase the international pressure to help.

  7. […] toll in Haiti are difficult to obtain at this point, but I think that we have hit the point where estimates in the six-figures are likely not hyperbole (via the BBC):    Haiti quake: Death toll may be 200,000, […]