7 May 2010

Capitol Hill briefing: What we can learn from the Haitian earthquake of 2010

Posted by Michael McFadden

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January caused disproportionate havoc relative to its magnitude: At least 230,000 people died and scores of schools, government buildings and houses were destroyed. In comparison, the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Chile a few weeks later, an event so large that might have shifted Earth’s axis, killed less than 500.

To analyze the causes of the massive destruction in Haiti and discuss how to rebuild the country in a way that makes it more resilient to future earthquakes, AGU and several other scientific associations organized a public briefing on Capitol Hill on 6 May.

“The reason why this happened is basically vulnerability,” said geophysicist Eric Calais, who is currently co-chairing the United Nations Haiti Earthquake Risk Reduction Task Force. The combination of a fault running dangerously close to Haiti’s overpopulated capital, Port-au-Prince, poorly constructed buildings, and an appalling lack of public education on what to do in case of earthquake proved fatal.

Reginal Desroches, a Haitian-born engineer who was another of the briefing speakers, is very familiar with his native land’s lack of preparedness for natural hazards. A professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, Desroches went on two expeditions to Haiti to assess the damage the earthquake caused to buildings: 13 out of 15 Government buildings, 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed, leaving up to 1.5 million Haitians homeless. On top of that, about 1,300 schools and other educational centers were destroyed in the Caribbean country.

“TV hasn’t done justice to the damage in downtown Port au Prince”, Desroches said. “It looks like a war scene”.

The cause of such havoc? Multiple deficiencies in construction, from ill-trained workers to a shortage of heavy machinery to extensive use of low-quality cement and other materials in most buildings.

Haiti needs to be rebuilt for resilience, Desroches said:  the countries involved in the reconstruction should develop constructions codes that consider the multiple natural hazards in Haiti, where hurricanes are also frequent. Plus, the country needs to develop a skilled labor force to ensure the quality of new buildings.

Elizabeth Hausler, founder and CEO of Build Change, a group that designs earthquake-resistant houses for developing countries, discussed low cost approaches to rebuilding using local workers and materials. Brian Tucker, president and founder of GeoHazards International, said that the Haiti earthquake is “a real opportunity” for the US to “use earthquake science and engineering as an arm for foreign policy”.

And what about the science?

The country can’t adequately address its earthquake risk “until there are seismologists and a seismological agency in Haiti,” Calais said. “We cannot (or should not) do it all for Haiti: we should spend a lot of effort and money training the next generation of Haitian scientists, engineers and specialists”.

Maria-José Viñas, AGU science writer