Haiti – An engineering disaster

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti was one of the greatest seismic tragedies of the last few decades. The magnitude 7 struck late in the afternoon with an epicentre just west the capital Port-au-Prince on 12th January 2010.

The earthquake caused major damage in the capital and surrounding regions leaving a death toll estimated between 100,000 and 316,000. Most of these deaths occurred due to the collapse of buildings and other infrastructure.

TED Fellow Peter Haas explains why Haiti was not a natural disaster but a disaster of engineering in his TED talk, linked below.

From Science to Action: Lessons learnt from Haiti

Eric Calais

Eric Calais

Recently we had our first joint Climate and Geohazard Services (CGS) and Institute of Geophysics and Tectonics (IGT) seminar at the University of Leeds.

Our invited speaker was Eric Calais who was the U.N.’s Geophysicist on the ground after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. This is a short summary of some of the topics discussed in his seminar.

Science and scientists are needed on the scene of disaster risk reduction – Eric Calais

Haiti and indeed all the Caribbean countries are exposed to many numerous hazards including earthquakes and hurricanes. Of these the most reliable are hurricanes which hit the region like clockwork every summer. However earthquakes are less regular and often occur after much longer time intervals. So when it comes to hazard mitigation hurricanes trump earthquakes!

Eric started his talk with an introduction to the tectonics of the Haiti region. The countries largest city, Port-au-Prince lies about 20 kilometres north of a major strike slip fault called the Enriquillo Fault. Eric, working in Haiti earlier in his career, had predicted the fault had a chance of storing enough energy which if released all at once will result in a magnitude 7.1 earthquake.

Earthquakes are not new to Haiti. There is abundant evidence for historic ruptures including one that was recorded by British colonist in the seventeen hundreds. However due to the long recurrence time of such events the human memory of these events gradually gets lost. Therefore, the inhabitants of Port-au-Prince were not prepared when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake shook the country on the 12th January 2010.

Shake and damage map of the 2010 earthquake. Source: BBC

Shake and damage map of the 2010 earthquake. Source: BBC

The resulting devastation took the lives of nearly nearly 316,000 people according to Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and displaced nearly a million people from their homes.

The second part of Eric’s talk focused on his experiences working with the U.N. as the chief geophysicist on the ground immediately after the earthquake.

The first important lesson learnt from Haiti is that the impacts from natural disasters are amplified by socio-economical and political issues.

UN aid in Haiti. Source: www.telegraph.co.uk

UN aid in Haiti. Source: telegraph.co.uk

It is clear that a government needs to find a balance between the gains from increased mitigation with the costs needed to achieve such mitigation levels. The maximum mitigation achievable with the minimum cost is generally the prefered option, especially for developing countries. But these decisions need to made with due consideration to the types, expected magnitude and repeat interval of each individual hazard.

The U.N. is well aware that building resilience is the key to maintaining development and reducing loss from natural disasters.

An important goal for the U.N. is to offer advice and embed clear resilience and mitigation strategies into governmental policy and ensure that these policies are effectively enforced.

However much of the U.N. data on human exposure to natural disasters are not entirely accurate and often out of date. Worryingly there appears to be no clear procedure for updating this information. Improving resilience becomes much more difficult without knowing the nature of the hazards faced. It is clear that the U.N. needs to invest in resources to update key data tables such as exposure and vulnerability; combining information from industry, especially the re-insurance sector, and outputs from the scientific community.

Post earthquake. Source: manongeo.wordpress.com

Post earthquake. Source: manongeo.wordpress.com

Most of the U.N. members of staff are non-scientists. Therefore, many of the on-the-spot decisions during disasters are made without a proper understanding of the underlying science.

It is clear that the scientific community have not been paying enough attention! We as scientists need to be more involved with the issues of disaster risk reduction. Scientists understand the hazards, the risks involved and to some extent what needs to be done. We just need to step forward and be more involved.

Eric ended his talk with the following call to arms:

“The gap between science products and practitioners of risk reduction requires someone to make the first step; scientists are in the best position [to take this step].”

Further Reading:

[1] http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2010/09/on-the-ground-with-eric-calais.html
[2] http://www.unfoundation.org/who-we-are/impact/our-impact/health-data-disaster-relief/haiti-earthquake-response.html
[3] http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2010/10/5-questions-for-geophysicist-eric-calais-on-the-newly-discovered-fault-in-haiti