Farmer's account shows how far Haiti must go to rebuild, and how damaged it already was before the disaster.
The devastating death blow that the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake delivered to Haiti, and its continuing efforts to recover, have curiously disappeared from the attention of our 24/7 news media. More than 200,000 people were killed and more than 300,000 injured in less than half an hour following the magnitude-7.0 earthquake.
Many more died in the following weeks from inadequate medical attention (despite heroic international relief efforts that managed to save lives under the worst of conditions) and a lack of basic needs, such as clean water and shelter. Currently, Haiti is far from healed and will need massive amounts of aid to recover.
Dr. Paul Farmer wants to place the aftermath of the earthquake back in our consciousness. Farmer, who in addition to being an author is a UN deputy special envoy for Haiti, founded Partners in Health (PIH), an organization that has worked with the Haitian organization Zanmi Lasante for a quarter-century,
(Farmer is also the subject of Tracy Kidder's best-selling 2003 book, "Mountains Beyond Mountains.")
In the first half of his own book, "Haiti After the Earthquake," Farmer bears witness to the disaster. This section contains valuable context for Haiti's history of endemic poverty and political instability. What emerges is that the earthquake was not simply a natural disaster; its effects were magnified by years of deforestation of hillsides, poorly constructed houses and a lack of accessible heath care. Because we have placed the world's poor in inescapable poverty traps, Farmer writes, we should more appropriately call these tragedies "unnatural disasters."
(It is not lost on another contributor to the book that a magnitude-8.8 earthquake off the coast of Chile a month later killed fewer than 600 people.)
The second part of the book includes short accounts from those who either witnessed the earthquake or arrived shortly thereafter to lend aid. This includes Farmer's wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, who had just settled her family in Rwanda. She writes passionately about the plight of Haitian women and girls in the wake of the earthquake -- especially, and most disturbingly, the rape of girls in refugee camps.
If all of this seems to add to one's sense of disaster fatigue, consider the nation that Didi Farmer points to as a road map for how to raise the standard of living among Haitian women: Rwanda, where women now have a 56.2 percent representation in their Parliament.
Haiti cannot simply rebuild to its past vulnerability, Farmer writes. This is the time, he says, to "build back better."
Stephen J. Lyons' latest book is "The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River." He recently discussed environmental disaster journalism at the Iowa City Writers Festival.