(Note – Following the completion of this post, further seismic events have occurred in Haiti. Upon reading this post, I ask you to read my post titled “Haiti Earthquake – UPDATE” for additional information. Thank you.)
On January 12, 2010 a 7.0 Magnitude earthquake struck Haiti at 4:53am local time. The focus of the earthquake occurred on the boundary region between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates at approximately 8 miles below the surface. This earthquake is reportedly the most devastating in this region in over a century. Though actual numbers associated with the destruction of infrastructure and loss of life have yet to be declared, much of the country and its capital, including the National Palace, are literally in ruins and “the international Red Cross estimated 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed in Tuesday’s cataclysmic earthquake, based on information from the Haitian Red Cross and government officials” (J. Katz and T. Lush, Associated Press).
A paper presented during the 18th Caribbean Geological Conference in March 2008 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic warned that an earthquake of this magnitude could occur in the region. Due to the proximity to plate boundaries, this is seismically a very active location. In fact, this is not the first time a major earthquake has struck the Caribbean. According to the United States Geological Survey, a dozen major earthquakes measuring Magnitude 7.0 or greater have struck the Caribbean in the past 500 years. The last major earthquake near the island of Hispaniola (where Haiti is located) was a Magnitude 8.0 in 1946 which triggered a tsunami that left 20,000 people homeless.
The United States Geological Survey provides information concerning the geology of the earthquake including details, a summary, maps, scientific and technical data, and additional information. USGS also provides excellent educational material on the geological mechanisms behind earthquakes.
I encourage you to support relief efforts in the Haitian region by donating to a reputable organization such as the Red Cross.
A video at CNN.com gives a good idea of the type of devastation in the area following the earthquake as does the below video, shot by CBS news.
In the case of Haiti, it’s probable that not much else could be done. They just don’t possess the ability (e.g. funding) to retrofit an entire country, or even the densely populated areas such as Port-au-Prince, to withstand dynamic forces such as earthquakes. In countries such as ours, it is easy to see how advanced warning, vague as it may be, could have a profound impact on a region from stricter building codes to emergency preparedness. In Haiti’s case, the later is probably all they could have done given their economic state.
Due to the imprecise nature of earthquake prediction, it would be illogical and detrimental to the country to try to cease tourism and evacuate its citizens. However, by establishing an emergency response plan in advance which does not rely on specific locations (like the several hospitals that collapsed), but rather one that may be implemented at any or several locations and without hesitation, they may be able to significantly cut down on organization time for such endeavors. Additionally, educating the public on the hazards associated with such natural disasters and what to do/where to go in order to remain as safe as possible is another program they may implement at low cost.
Simple things like this may not keep the structures from collapsing, but they could save thousands of lives in the end. It’s the simple Boy Scout Motto: Be prepared! In a region where major earthquakes happen frequently, it’s a good idea to make that a major concern for the safety of your people.
I will point out that I am not, in any way, implying that the Haitian government was ignorant to the fact that a major earthquake may strike. It is just as likely that they may have done the things I’ve mentioned. In times like these, things rarely go according to plan. And when you have hundreds of thousands of people to worry about, an organized plan may look like chaos. Whatever is happening, I hope that the Haitian people find relief soon and that the estimated 45,000+ deaths was an exaggeration.
What can a country do with such a warning? Especially a country as poor and unsettled as Haiti? Could there have been a different outcome? Other than a “Told ya so!” to those suffering people, how can the knowledge of a vague, sometime-in-the-future seismic eruption be utilized?