At 7.0 on the Richter scale, the earthquake that hit Haiti on Jan. 12 was strong, but hardly record-breaking — very similar, in fact, to a 7.0 temblor that hit the San Francisco Bay area in 1989. But that’s where the similarities end.
The 1989 San Francisco quake left up to 12,000 people homeless and killed 63. The 2010 Haiti quake, however, will likely make over a million people homeless, and its death toll could be 50,000 or much higher.
The wealthy Bay Area, accustomed to seismological instability, had good — and enforced — building codes, and well-supplied emergency personnel capable of responding to the disaster immediately.
Haiti, the poorest country in the western Hemisphere, had nothing — what building codes it had were unenforced, police and other emergency personnel were almost nonexistent and many of its people were already in ill health.
“Haiti was totally set up for this catastrophe,” says Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, an NGO that has worked in Haiti. “I was amazed there wasn’t even more destruction.”
Haiti was, quite literally, a disaster waiting to happen, and its fate shows that in the 21st century, even more than in the last, the toll of a natural catastrophe is less a matter of the power of the storm or earthquake than the state of the people who suffer it.
That means that a long-term priority for rebuilding — and rebuilding stronger — will be the building stock itself, because that makes the difference between life and death in a temblor.
“Earthquakes don’t kill people,” says John Mutter, a seismologist and disaster expert at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “Bad buildings kill them.” And Haiti had some of the worst buildings in world.
There are building codes, but in a country that has been ranked as the 10th most corrupt in the world, enforcement is lax at best. The concrete blocks used to construct buildings in the capital are often handmade, and are of wildly varying quality.
“In Haiti a block is maybe an eighth of the weight of a concrete block that you’d buy in the U.S.,” says Peter Haas, the executive director of the Appropriate
Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG), an NGO that has worked on buildings in Haiti. “You end up providing buildings quickly and cheaply but at great risk.”
It was the people of Port au Prince who ended up suffering those risks, as the earthquake caused buildings to collapse and pancake, crushing those living within. Nor was it only the slum housing, where many of the capital’s more than 2 million people live, that failed.
Buildings housing international personnel — including luxury hotels and the headquarters of the United Nations mission to Haiti — also collapsed, adding to the death toll and robbing survivors of what could have been secure shelter after the quake.
“A real huge missed opportunity in Haiti was the fact that even buildings built and occupied by foreign agencies didn’t stand up,” says Brian Tucker, the president of GeoHazards International, a non-profit that works to reduce earthquake risk. “Imagine the symbolism that would have represented if those buildings had remained standing amid all the rubble.”
Even as the initial search and rescue continues, the immediate need is for structural engineers to examine damaged buildings that are still left standing and determine whether they’re safe for habitation.
(Survivors are still sleeping in the streets of Port au Prince in part because they’re afraid — rightfully so — that the remaining structures could still collapse.) AIDG, together with the medical group Partners in Health, is already sending volunteer structural engineers across the border from the Dominican Republic to do safety analyses on existing buildings. “We want to take a look at what is standing and what might still collapse,” says Haas.
“We’ll begin to figure out what the reconstruction plan could be.”
But reconstruction can’t just be a matter of returning to the benighted status quo — that would just put the city at the risk for another major disaster down the line.
Instead, the recovery effort will need to provide Haitians with houses, hospitals and offices that can at least resist mid-power quakes like this one, and which could provide protection from the island’s many other natural threats: floods, hurricanes and mud slides. And it has to be affordable — in the short term, at least, Haiti will only become poorer.
“It would be unconscionable to turn Port au Prince back to the way it was,” says Mutter. “You have to use this as perverse chance to build back better.”
The good news is that there are ways to build pre-fab housing that can be tougher and more resistant to quakes — along with putting into place programs that prepare people for how to deal with quakes and other disasters.
GeoHazard International has been helping with just such a program on the southwestern coast of the Indonesia island of Sumatra, which was among the territory devastated by the 2004 tsunami.
For that to work in Haiti, the country will need aid money, and will need it for a while — Tucker argues that 10% of the money donated to Haiti should be allocated for long-term disaster preparation and mitigation.
“This is going to be a long-term commitment,” says Dennis Mileti, the author of the book Disasters by Design. “We need to keep this in the public’s eye.” Otherwise, 10 or 50 to 100 years from now, we’ll be back, standing in the wreckage once more.