People across the country are looking at images of devastation from Haiti and, I think, at the same time they’re actually underestimating how bad this is. We’re accustomed to the idea that a natural disaster can strike, kill many people, be a huge tragedy, and then people will go about rebuilding.

But this earthquake has not only killed a lot of people, it’s going to completely shatter the efficacy of Haitian state institutions. My colleagues Andrew Sweet and Rudy DeLeon note that “The World Bank ranked Haiti in the bottom 6 percent on government effectiveness in 2006.” Back last fall, CAP’s Haiti report stated that “The government does not have adequate funds and systems to provide services to the people in a manner that meets their essential needs and builds governmental legitimacy.” And now public needs have increased exponentially at the same time the main government buildings have literally collapsed. Hospitals and schools are shut down, the port and the airport don’t work, there’s just nothing left.

The US is reportedly sending a few thousand more soldiers to Haiti, to join the already-extant UN forces there. Since Haiti is a relatively small country you could imagine the international community undertaking an effort to send many more forces than that and essentially run the country on an interim basis. Countries like France, Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland can, in principle, offer well-trained soldiers who can communicate easily with the local population which would make such an undertaking more feasible than a lot of other population security missions.

Short of that, it’s worth thinking about the extent to which generous immigration policies could do enormous good for Haiti’s population. In the short-term, what’s most needed is immediate assistance to save as many lives as possible. But Tyler Cowen’s guess that “the country as a whole is currently below the subsistence level and will remain so for the foreseeable future” seems very plausible. The most likely alternative to mass immiseration and death for the survivors seems to me to be large-scale emigration to the developed world. Otherwise you’re going to have millions of people with no means of supporting themselves.