Monday, March 1, 2010

Haiti isn't Chile: Earthquakes, Economics, and Building Codes

Haiti had a devastating earthquake last month. This weekend, Chile was hit by one of the strongest quakes in the last century.

The last I heard, Chile's government wasn't asking for help from other countries. That may not be stupid pride. Chile isn't Haiti.

Haiti can use help. Here's a list of charities you've probably heard about already, with links and some contact information: Also a list of posts in this, and two other blogs, about Haiti.

Now, about Chile, Haiti, and the two big quakes this year.

"Earthquake rattles Chile but tsunami a fizzer in Pacific"
Courier Mail, via. (March 1, 2010)

"RESCUE teams have hunted for survivors after one of the largest earthquakes on record killed at least 300 people in Chile and sent waves roaring across the Pacific Ocean.

"A rapid tsunami alert gripped almost 50 countries and territories along an arc stretching from Australia and New Zealand to Japan, Russia and North America.

"Although the tsunami caused little damage after it raced across the Pacific at speeds around 720km/h, it showed the lessons learned following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that claimed almost 230,000 lives...."

In a way, that's good news. Particularly since yesterday's quake in Chile released roughly 500 times as much energy as the one in Haiti last month: Magnitude 8.8, compared to Haiti's 7.0. (500 times? Yes: The Richter Magnitude scale isn't linear, it's logarithmic: if you plot it on paper it looks a little like a ski jump, going up to the right. More at "The Richter Magnitude Scale," USGS (United States Geological Survey).)

Bigger Quake, Smaller Death Toll: Why?

The Haitians government says about 220,000 people died in the January 12, 2010 earthquake there. It looks like around 300 died in Chile yesterday morning. Odds are that the death toll for Chile will go up - but that's still a bit over a thousandth of the number of people killed in Haiti.

What gives?

I'm old enough to remember the 'good old days,' when a person could assume that since Chile was a Latin American country, this week's Generalissimo Supremo El Presidente had decided that the death toll should be low: and had people who said otherwise shot.

This isn't the fifties any more, and things have changed. More Latin American countries have gotten their acts together - or are in the process. Chile seems to be one of them.

Haiti? Well, let's say there's room for improvement.

"Tale of Two Quakes: Chile Was Ready, Haiti Wasn't"
FOXNews (February 27, 2010)

"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 underground in a relatively unpopulated area while Haiti's tectonic mayhem struck closer to the surface — about 8 miles - and right on the edge of Port-au-Prince, factors that increased its destructiveness...."

"...In terms of energy released at the epicenter, the Chilean quake was 501 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...."

That phrase - "infinitely better prepared" - is just plain wrong. I wish journalists would learn a little about mathematics and language. But that's another topic.

Okay - Haiti's quake happened a whole lot closer to a And buildings in Chile are designed to sway when they're shaken: absorbing energy without breaking. Buildings in Haiti? Back to that article.

"..."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 resistant.

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

I'm no big fan of regulations for the sake of regulation. But some make sense: like making it a rule that everybody drives on the right (or left) side of the road. And make buildings so that they won't collapse, even if it costs a bit extra.

Remember when the dirt-poor 'banana republic' where the nation changed its government and underwear at about the same rate was a stereotype - but not all-too-accurate for many Latin American nations? I do.

That was then, this is now.

Back to the article again.

" '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...."

That may be an unfair comparison, since Chile's government buildings hadn't, by and large, been knocked over by the quake. On the other hand - - -.

"...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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