A Lesson in Haitian Geography

On August 27, 2012 by Eric

At this point, the fact that Haiti has been affected by Tropical Storm Isaac is likely old news to most anyone reading this.  Because it has been all over the news and television for days now, I’m not going to talk much about the facts and figures that have shown up in the majority of news reports.  Instead, I’d like to explain my perspective on a few of the challenges the geography of Haiti can create when a storm of this size passes through.

On my first trip to Haiti I was instantly taken aback by the incredible contrast between the mountains and the sea.  It truly is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the privilege to experience.  For those of you who have not been to Haiti, Here is a picture of me and my wonderful friend Marlo, taken on a mountain overlook (altitude 3000 ft) on the south side of Port-Au-Prince. In the distance, across the bay, you can see the mountains on the northern side of the island.  As they say, the picture really doesn’t do it justice.. but I do believe it gives you a taste of the scenery.

Port-Au-Prince Overlook

To further put the mountains into perspective, I present the following comparison.  What I want you to see in the first image is that the yellow line measures 6 miles from sea level to the top of the mountain, which peaks at an elevation of around 5400ft.  The yellow line crosses a couple miles north of where Marlo and I are standing in the picture above.

Port-Au-Prince Elevation Change

Next, comparing to something closer to home, observe the distance and elevation change between Colorado Springs, CO and the summit of Pike’s Peak.  Colorado Springs is around 6000ft, Pike’s Peak is a shade over 14,000ft, so the elevation change is around 8000ft over 12 miles.

Pike's Peak Elevation Change

Now, I’m no math professor, but comparing the rates of elevation change (900 ft/mi for Haiti vs. 667 ft/mi for Pike’s Peak), you get a sense of how significant the elevation change is going from sea level into the mountains of Haiti.

So, where am I going with all of this talk of rates of elevation change?  You have to understand:  Haiti is basically mountains shooting out of the sea.  Everything around Port-Au-Prince (and most of the rest of the country) is built on the side of a mountain.  This explains why you have heard so much about the danger of mudslides when storms like this come through Haiti.

Along those same lines, poor road conditions can sometimes make travel around Haiti a challenge.  Many of the gravel roads leading up the mountain to the communities our teams minister in (Mariani, Bertin, Bwadjout, etc.) were already washed out quite a bit.  When large storms come through, the water rushes down from these roads, filling the main roads with gravel and other debris.  Flooding in the lower lying regions is a given, but even the water flowing down the mountains can cause flooding in many structures.

If you have never been to Haiti before, hopefully this gives you a sense of the geography of the country and why it contributes to the problems the Haitians are facing.  Please continue to be in prayer for the people in Haiti as they recover from the storm.  Whether it be roof damage causing significant water leaks, problems returning to work due to road conditions, or the total loss of a home, thousands of people will be continually facing daily challenges as they work to return to a normal way of life.

-Eric

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