Saturday, March 6, 2010

Chile and Haiti: A tale of two quakes

By David Roberts

Following the latest two big earthquakes to hit the region, the one in Haiti on January 12 and the one in central-southern Chile on February 27, many people have been comparing the catastrophes and questioning why so many people died in the Haiti event - up to 300,000, while the capital Port-au-Prince was pretty much flattened - and relatively few in Chile, at around 800, according to the latest count.

The earthquake in Chile, measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale, was supposedly 700 times more powerful than the one in Haiti, which measured 7.0. According to the scientists, one additional decimal point on the Richter scale means 10 times more energy is released, and while that may be difficult to believe in terms of how an earth tremor feels (a 4.1 certainly doesn't feel 10 times more powerful than a 4.0, for instance), the Chilean event was certainly much more powerful than the one in Haiti.

There are of course obvious reasons why the Chilean earthquake led to considerably less destruction and loss of life than the Haiti one. Building standards are very different, and that's a lesson that Chile has learnt from massive earthquakes in the past that caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people, such as Chillán in 1939 and Valdivia in 1960 (at 9.5 on the Richter scale the most powerful one ever registered), after which much stricter building codes were introduced. Many buildings in Port-au-Prince collapsed because they were not constructed using steel rebars to reinforce the concrete, while poverty and poor living conditions in general led to many more deaths than would otherwise have been the case, not to mention those many fatalities and injuries that resulted from inadequate rescue equipment and services, nor the illnesses that followed because of poor water supplies.

Another factor partly explaining the relatively modest damage - "relatively" is the key word here, as damage is initially estimated at up to US$30bn - and numbers of victims in Chilean earthquakes in recent decades is that they tend to be deeper in the ground than in many other parts of the world.

Indeed, on occasions some Chileans appear to be proud of the fact that their country seems to largely resist such powerful quakes, at least compared to other nations like Haiti, China or Iran, for example. There is, however, no room for complacency, and standards must be improved further. The February 27 event caused major destruction, even to modern infrastructure facilities that should have emerged unscathed, such as Santiago's so-called earthquake-proof airport (fortunately there were relatively few passengers in the terminal at the time), recently built highways and even an overpass on Santiago's beltway collapsed, and all that despite the quake in the capital measuring "only" 8.0. Several apartment blocks built just a few years ago came down or were severely damaged. To make matters worse, and this too demonstrates how far Chile still has to go in terms of development, many of the homes destroyed have no proper insurance coverage.

Then mistakes were made in the response by the authorities to the quake, most notably the navy ruling out a tsunami, which hit the coast of central-southern Chile a few minutes later, killing hundreds (including some in Juan Fernández archipelago).

In the event of a massive earthquake it is perhaps inevitable, wherever it occurs, that certain damage will ensue, and the authorities cannot take all the blame. Look at the telephone networks for instance, so vital in terms of a major disaster. One can expect the landlines to go down, but it seems mighty strange that just one of three mobile companies appeared to manage to keep its network operating.

Fortunately, Chilean authorities appear to be well aware of the shortcomings, so the onus now will be on the new government led by Sebastián Piñera to take up the reins and further improve standards.