02 March 2010

What Causes Disasters

From the lead editorial in today's FT (emphasis added):

The earthquake that struck the town of Concepci√≥n in Chile before dawn on Saturday – the fifth strongest ever recorded – does not show humanity at the mercy of the blind forces of nature. It demonstrates, instead, that lives and livelihoods are much more vulnerable to a society’s response to catastrophe than to natural disaster itself.

Heart-rending as they are, Chile’s deaths and losses are far smaller than those of Haiti, struck seven weeks ago by an earthquake that was a thousandfold weaker. This reflects that Chile is one of the most earthquake-stricken countries on earth, and its people know how to take precautions.


  1. For it really to be a fair comparison, the epicenter of the Chile earthquake would have had to be right in Santiago instead of 50 miles outside a much smaller city. It's probably still true that Chile would have fared better anyway. There's a saying among earthquake hazard experts that earthquakes don't kill people, buildings do. It's all about building codes. If the building you're in remains standing, you'll probably be OK.

  2. After Haiti was devastated, my sister and I discussed the 6.3 magnitude earthquake we lived through In El Salvador. That was a pretty big quake-- but like the Chileans, the El Salvadorans use rebar in many buildings, and kids practice earthquake drills.

  3. I think there are several factors other than poverty. The largest recorded quake happend only 50 years prior in an ajoining section of the same fault. So there was history that occured in the living memory of many. Second the subduction quakes tend to be deep. I think this one was at 28 miles so it was very strong and the damage wide spread (Santiago is 200 miles from the epicenter if I recall). Third, we are only a few days into the relief. It may be found that as time goes on the devastation is in fact greater. Haiti on the other hand had a quake of this magnetude more than 250 years ago and the last major quate was in 1860, well before modern building codes and several generations beyond recollection. (The Dominican Republic on the other side of the island did have a major one in 1948.) Thier quake was only 5 miles deep so damage was severe but more localized. In a country as poor as Haiti that has a long period between major quakes, it easy to see how earthquake construction standards may be insufficient.

  4. #1 TSL

    Perhaps the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake would be a better comparison. Chengdu (capital city of Sichuan province) was 50 miles away from the epicenter and they had over 4200 confirmed deaths. Shoddy construction and improper building codes were major contributors to the casualty totals.

  5. Humanity adapts. The question is always 'to what'.

    I'm pretty sure people in South Florida are way better adapted to 100+ MPH winds then the folks in Southern California.