Unlike Haiti, Chile was prepared on many levels
Death toll much lower because of quake’s location, preparedness of wealthier country.
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 the country’s poorly constructed buildings.
And Chile was 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 eight miles — and right on the edge of Port-au-Prince.
The U.S. Geological Survey said eight Haitian cities and towns — including this capital of 3 million — suffered “violent” to “extreme” shaking in last month’s seven-magnitude quake, which Haiti’s government estimates killed 220,000 people. Chile’s death toll was in the hundreds.
By contrast, no Chilean urban area suffered more than “severe” shaking — the third most serious level — Saturday in its 8.8-magnitude disaster, according to the Geological Survey. The quake was centered 200 miles away from Chile’s capital and largest city, Santiago.
In terms of energy released at the epicenter, the Chilean quake was 900 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,” said University of Miami geologist Tim Dixon.
Survivors of Haiti’s quake described abject panic — much of it well-founded as buildings imploded around them. Many Haitians grabbed cement pillars, which crumbled in their hands. Haitians were not schooled in how to react — by sheltering under tables and door frames and away from glass windows.
Chileans, on the other hand, have homes and offices built to ride out quakes, their steel skeletons designed to sway with seismic waves rather than resist them.
“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 had architect colleagues in Chile who had built thousands of low-income housing structures to be earthquake resistant.
In Haiti, by contrast, there is no building code.
Patrick Midy, a leading Haitian architect, said he knew of only three earthquake-resistant buildings in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.
Sinclair’s San Franciscobased organization received 400 requests for help the day after the Haiti quake but he said it had yet to receive a single request for help for Chile.
“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,” Sinclair said.
Most Haitians didn’t know whether their president, Rene
relatively Preval, was alive or dead for at least a day after the quake.
Eric Calais, a Purdue University geophysicist studying the Haiti quake, said seismic activity is fairly common in Chile. Chile experienced the stron- gest earthquake on record in 1960, and Saturday’s quake was the nation’s third of over magnitude-8.7.
“It’s quite likely that every person there has felt a major earthquake in their lifetime,” he said, “whereas the last one to hit Port-au-Prince was 250 years ago.”
On Port-au-Prince’s streets Saturday, many people had not heard of Chile’s quake. More than half a million are home- less, and most lack electricity and are preoccupied with 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.”