Haiti may sound like a faraway, exotic location. But the distance between Atlanta and the capital, Port-au-Prince, is just 1,300 miles. That’s the same as going from Atlanta to El Paso, Texas.
Haiti isn’t an island. The country shares the Atlantic Ocean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Hispaniola, or “Little Spain,” plays an important role in world history because it was here that Christopher Columbus landed in 1492.
He didn’t discover America. He found this Caribbean island, sandwiched between Cuba and Puerto Rico. It became the base of the Spanish exploration going beyond the Caribbean, including Mexico and Florida.
Hispaniola’s climate is benign and challenging at the same time. Warm breezes and sandy beaches contrast with the fact that the island is in a frequently traveled hurricane path.
Another aspect are the mountain peaks. Most Caribbean islands are the opposite of our Georgia barrier islands. They aren’t accumulations of sand dunes a few feet above the water. Hispaniola’s peaks are volcanic, comparable to some in the western U.S.
The tallest, Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic, was only surveyed conclusively in 2003. With an elevation of 10,164 feet, it’s also the highest peak in the Caribbean. To the west, in Haiti, the Pic La Selle measures 8,773 feet, still much taller than the highest mountains in the eastern United States.
Mountains this tall can weaken hurricanes by separating them from their energy source, warm ocean water. But this didn’t help Haiti last month.
Hurricane Matthew’s circulation was counterclockwise, bringing northwesterly wind and waves into the huge bay on Haiti’s western edge. It narrows into the bays of Port-au-Prince and Gonaïves. Water pushing into these funnels rises dozens of feet and floods the low-lying subdivisions.
From the outskirts of the cities, the terrain climbs immediately beyond 1,000 feet, sending more drainage water and mudslides into densely populated areas. Santo Domingo, in the island’s other country, is much better off because it’s not in a bay location, and for miles the ground rises only gradually from the shore.
It’s not surprising that Haiti is still the hard-hit part of Hispaniola. Last week, thousands were still sheltering in schools and tents, and cholera was still making the rounds. With its historic troubles of slavery, 20th century “reparation” payments to once-colonizer France, and hurricanes as well as the horrific 2010 earthquake, Haiti deserves lots of help.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.