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Posted on on February 28th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (

Poverty Predicts Quake Damage Better Than Richter Scale

Emily Schmall Contributor, February 27, 2010
Though an 8.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked Chile early Saturday was one of the strongest on record, the structural devastation and human toll is expected to be far smaller than the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti in January.

To project the scope of destruction and loss of human life, the quality of buildings and the poverty level are far more telling than the magnitude on the Richter scale, scientists and aid workers say.

“It’s not as much the earthquake that kills, it’s the poverty that kills,” said Colin Stark, a geomorphologist and researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who is studying the aftermath of a 1999 earthquake in Taiwan to predict the probability of landslides in Haiti.

In 1999, earthquakes of similar magnitudes struck Taiwan and Turkey, but Turkey, which has a higher poverty level, experienced five times as much damage, according to Stark. “The thing ultimately that decides how much damage there will be and how many people die is the quality of the buildings,” he said.

Mexico City, built on a lakebed, proved particularly vulnerable in 1985 when a 8.1-magnitude earthquake killed about 10,000 people and toppled more than 400 buildings.

The depth and proximity of the earthquake’s epicenter to cities also determine the level of damage, said Robert Williams, a geophysicist for the United States Geological Survey in Golden, Colo. “The Haiti quake occurred very close to some densely populated areas. In Chile, by the time the energy reached the capital, it had dissipated a little bit. Also the Chile quake was deeper, so the energy was attenuated as it rose to the surface,” said Williams.

The epicenter of Saturday’s earthquake was 385 miles southwest of Santiago, but the tremor toppled historic buildings in the capital and resulted in the death of hundreds of people.

By comparison, the death toll from Haiti’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake Jan. 12, whose epicenter was only 15 miles from the capital Port-au-Prince, has exceeded 230,000 and could reach 300,000, Haitian Prime Minister Rene Preval told a meeting
of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Mexico last week.

Aid workers from Seattle-based World Vision were dispatched Saturday afternoon on the first relief flight to Chile, though the damage was not expected to rival the destruction in Haiti. “World Vision is concerned about those living near the epicenter who are poorer and more marginalized in Chilean society, and of course children. But it would be difficult to imagine us seeing anywhere near the death toll or damage that we’ve seen in Haiti,” spokesperson Rachel Wolff said.

A country’s experience and preparedness also lower fatalities in a natural disaster, Wolff said. Chile sits in the “ring of fire” earthquake zone around the Pacific Rim, and it has a long history of earthquakes, including the strongest on record which struck in 1960, a 9.5-magnitude quake that struck near Validvia and left 1,655 dead.

In Haiti, the severity of destruction and the high number of deaths were a function of the nation’s extreme poverty, lack of building codes and inexperience with earthquakes, Wolff said. Chile, by comparison, has strong building codes based on experience with large and fairly regular earthquakes. The nation’s average annual income is $11,000, compared to $1,900 in Haiti.

Wealthier earthquake-prone areas like San Francisco invest in buildings that will withstand disaster, Stark said. Poor nations have little hope of constructing homes and office buildings that meet such high standards, he said.

“For many of the poor inhabitants, indeed, they will never be able to afford to construct buildings as they do in San Francisco, but that shouldn’t be the goal,” said Marc Eberhard, a University of Washington civil and environmental engineering professor who led a five-person team that provided engineering support to the United States Southern Command in Haiti.

Eberhard said that many of the earthquake’s fatalities could have been prevented by using earthquake-resistant designs and construction, as well as improved quality control in concrete and masonry work. “One could have improved the building stock tremendously without spending a lot of money.”


SATURDAY, FEB 27, 2010
Chile was ready for quake, Haiti wasn’t – Wealth, building codes and preparedness kept many Chileans safe while Haitians perished

The earthquake in Chile was far stronger than the one that struck Haiti last month — yet the death toll in this Caribbean nation is magnitudes higher.

The reasons are simple.

Chile is wealthier and infinitely better prepared, with strict building codes, robust emergency response and a long history of handling seismic catastrophes. No living Haitian had experienced a quake at home when the Jan. 12 disaster crumbled their poorly constructed buildings.

And Chile was relatively lucky this time.

Saturday’s quake was centered offshore an estimated 21 miles (34 kilometers) underground in a relatively unpopulated area while Haiti’s tectonic mayhem struck closer to the surface — about 8 miles (13 kilometers) — and right on the edge of Port-au-Prince.

“Earthquakes don’t kill — they don’t create damage — if there’s nothing to damage,” said Eric Calais, a Purdue University geophysicist studying the Haiti quake.

The U.S. Geological Survey says eight Haitian cities and towns — including this capital of 3 million — suffered “violent” to “extreme” shaking in last month’s 7-magnitude quake, which Haiti’s government estimates killed some 220,000 people and left about 1.2 homeless. Chile’s death toll was in the hundreds.

By contrast, no Chilean urban area suffered more than “severe” shaking — the third most serious level — Saturday in it’s 8.8-magnitude disaster, by USGS measure. The quake was centered 200 miles (325 kms) away from the capital and largest city, Santiago.

In terms of energy released at the epicenter, said Calais, the Chilean quake was 900 times stronger. But energy dissipates rather quickly as distances grow from epicenters — and the ground beneath Port-au-Prince is less stable by comparison and “shakes like jelly,” says University of Miami geologist Tim Dixon.

Survivors of Haiti’s quake described abject panic — much of it well-founded as buildings imploded around them. Many Haitians grabbed cement pillars only to watch them crumble in their hands. Haitians were not schooled in how to react — by sheltering under tables and door frames, and away from glass windows.

Chileans, on the other hand, have homes and offices built to ride out quakes, their steel skeletons designed to sway with seismic waves rather than resist them.

“When you look at the architecture in Chile you see buildings that have damage, but not the complete pancaking that you’ve got in Haiti,” said Cameron Sinclair, executive director of Architecture for Humanity, a 10-year-old nonprofit that has helped people in 36 countries rebuild after disasters.

Sinclair said he has architect colleagues in Chile who have built thousands of low-income housing structures to be earthquake resistance.

In Haiti, by contrast, there is no building code.

Patrick Midy, a leading Haitian architect, said he knew of only three earthquake-resistant buildings in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

Sinclair’s San Francisco-based organization received 400 requests for help the day after the Haiti quake but he said it had yet to receive a single request for help for Chile.

“On a per-capita basis, Chile has more world-renowned seismologists and earthquake engineers than anywhere else,” said Brian E. Tucker, president of GeoHazards International, a nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto, California.

Their advice is heeded by the government in Latin America’s wealthiest nation, getting built not just into architects’ blueprints and building codes but also into government contingency planning.

“The fact that the president (Michelle Bachelet) was out giving minute-to-minute reports a few hours after the quake in the middle of the night gives you an indication of their disaster response,” said Sinclair.

Most Haitians didn’t know whether their president, Rene Preval, was alive or dead for at least a day after the quake. The National Palace and his residence — like most government buildings — had collapsed.

Haiti’s TV, cell phone networks and radio stations were knocked off the air by the seismic jolt.

Col. Hugo Rodriguez, commander of the Chilean aviation unit attached to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti, waited anxiously Saturday with his troops for word from loved ones at home.

He said he knew his family was OK and expressed confidence that Chile would ride out the disaster.

“We are organized and prepared to deal with a crisis, particularly a natural disaster,” Rodriguez said. “Chile is a country where there are a lot of natural disasters.”

Calais, the geologist, noted that frequent seismic activity is as common to Chile as it is to the rest of the Andean ridge. Chile experienced the strongest earthquake on record in 1960, and Saturday’s quake was the nation’s third of over magnitude-8.7.

“It’s quite likely that every person there has felt a major earthquake in their lifetime,” he said, “whereas the last one to hit Port-au-Prince was 250 years ago.”

“So who remembers?”

On Port-au-Prince’s streets Saturday, many people had not heard of Chile’s quake. More than half a million are homeless, most still lack electricity and are preoccupied about trying to get enough to eat.

Fanfan Bozot, a 32-year-old reggae singer having lunch with a friend, could only shake his head at his government’s reliance on international relief to distribute food and water.

“Chile has a responsible government,” he said, waving his hand in disgust. “Our government is incompetent.”

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