The 7,0 magnitude earthquake that hammered Haiti was so intense – and the nation so poor – that it is hard to imagine anything could have been done to prevent the tragedy. But geophysicist Eric Calais from Purdue University in the US warned the Caribbean nation of the risk, and says that the information could have been used to better prepare the island for an emergency response. At a conference in the neighbouring Dominican Republic in 2008, Calais and his team presented a paper that calculated that the Enriquillo fault, which produced the January quake, had the potential to generate a lethal tremor. That paper was the latest in a series of warnings his team issued since 2005. “We’ve told the Haitian government exactly where the fault is, and that it could produce a 7,2 magnitude event or larger,” Calais says. “Unfortunately, our number is fairly close to what happened.”
Earthquakes can’t be prevented, but even impoverished nations can prepare for them. For the most part, Haiti failed to take action. “You can identify the few buildings that are critical – that have to stand up in the face of a large earthquake, such as hospitals and schools, from which rescue operations can be organised. This hasn’t been done,” Calais says. “One of the first buildings in Port-au-Prince that collapsed was a hospital. That is unacceptable.”
Haiti is not alone in its lack of preparations for calamity. Other local and national governments ignore earthquake warnings by allowing substandard construction and failing to craft emergency plans – possibly dooming their populations to similarly heartbreaking aftermaths.
Five high-risk faults
1. New Madrid, United States: Scientists predict that the New Madrid fault zone, located over five Midwestern and Southern states, has a 90 per cent chance of producing a major quake within the next 50 years. Millions of people in the region live in homes that wouldn’t likely survive an earthquake.
2. Quito, Ecuador: Quito sits on an active seismic zone. But as its population rises, so do fears that the city is not prepared for earthquakes and, in particular, concern that schools won’t survive tremors.
3. Istanbul, Turkey: Nearly 20 000 people died in Turkey’s 1999 Kocaeli quake, but preparations are still lacking. A main fault line lies less than 21 kilometres from Istanbul, representing an extreme risk.
4. Delhi, India: The city of over 12 million is located in the foothills of the Himalayas, where earthquakes are caused by the slow collision of continental plates. Delhi’s hospitals and other public infrastructure are inadequate for the population, a fact that bodes poorly for emergency response.
5. Kathmandu, Nepal: The population of Kathmandu has been increasing steadily for decades, but the attendant construction was not regulated and building codes are rarely enforced. Nepal’s disaster management agencies are understaffed and not geared for rescue.
Haiti sits on the boundary between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. The movement of seismologists’ sensors shows that the Caribbean plate moves about 6 mm a year in relation to the static North America plate. The north Española block, between the plates, is marked by mountains and a fault line (not shown); another fault lies south of it.
Stress from the passing continental plates builds along fracture lines, such as the Enriquillo fault that runs through southern Haiti. Quakes result when the pressure is suddenly released.