Friday, March 5, 2010

Chile, Haiti, India....And Earthquake Preparedness

On NPR's Talk of the Nation (March 1) guests discuss earthquake preparedness and why the Haitian earthquake caused much more damage than the Chilean one despite the Chilean earthquake being more powerful.

Geology is part of the answer. The Haitian earthquake occurred closer to population centers and was shallower. So a very large population was exposed to violent ground shaking. In Chile the earthquake was farther away from large population centers with the most violent ground motion taking place at sea.

Apart from geology, one of the guests Eliana Loveluck who is a survivor of the 1960 Chilean earthquake offers this explanation:

Neil Conan: But Eliana Loveluck is still with us here in the studio. I wanted to ask you a question about these building codes. Is this a part of Chilean culture?

Ms. Loveluck: It is. In Chile, we grow up knowing about earthquakes, being told what to do in different situations. I always grew up knowing that if I was at the beach, and I saw water receding, I needed to run the other way because the water was coming back.

But I think what is very important to acknowledge is that Chile has always had a very strong infrastructure, and it has a very well-functioning government, and that infrastructure is prepared and constantly being reassessed in terms of preparedness for dealing with earthquakes.

The other thing that I think is very important to also acknowledge is that Chile is a country with very little corruption. It actually scores very close to the United States, and so it is not a country where you can go and bribe a builder to overlook the codes or anything like that....

Recent earthquake memories, education, better government institutions and low levels of corruption enabling preparedness plans to be effectively implemented.

Haiti suffered from both a geological misfortune of having the epicenter too close to population centers, but also from a total lack of preparedness, a virtual lack of institutional support and extreme poverty leading to poor quality constructions.

India falls somewhere in between Chile and Haiti. It has good institutions and a strong science and engineering backbone. The National Bureau of Standards have long ago formulated earthquake resistance building codes which have undergone periodic revisions. The National Information Center Of Earthquake Engineering at IIT Kanpur has a list of all the earthquake building codes.

So there is no lack of safety codes and regulations. Its the last point Ms. Loveluck points to that India fails miserably namely ....government apathy and corruption. Enforcement of rules is very poor. Its easy to bribe officials into overlooking construction plans that don't follow stringent earthquake safety codes. That and a lack of expertise at the municipality level,  where building plans get clearance, in assessing what exactly an earthquake safe building should be given local conditions.

I found a couple of links which point to these problems. This article explores how post-Bhuj earthquake, plans to revise and implement earthquake safety codes stalled as a result of bureaucratic red tape and political manipulations of development rules.

And this article describes the situation in Delhi which launched an ambitious seismic vulnerability micro-zonation mapping plan in 2001. It has still not been completed and revision of building safety regulations supposed to be based on that plan remain in limbo.

Meanwhile tens of thousands of new buildings have come up in an area classified as a seismically active zone, just 150 km from some major Himalayan faults. One can only guess at the safety standards being adhered to and the potentially catastrophic cost of this inaction.


  1. Good, timely post. Over at my blog, we've been having similar discussions and whether there is a growing branch of sociology called "seismic sociology." The proposition sounds very dicey, given the social and political propensity for the misuse or partial use of scientific findings. Recovery scenarios, however, indicate that ignoring geology and climactic realities is a long-term economic risk.

  2. Maitri- thanks for the link to your interesting blog. I will be following.."seismic sociology" this a name cooked up to create a new research niche.. :)

  3. This is one of those things that I periodically lay in bed worrying about. At least three things need to be done, probably more. First, as you point out, we need to revise the building codes and enforce them. Far too much new construction is taking place along the flood plain, which I understand is more unstable. That's easier said than done, but there we are.

    Second, we need to do a much better job of educating our children and our selves about what to do in the event of a quake. Schools do a poor job of this.

    Third, we need to think of this issue when we look at low income housing in general. More than 4 million people live in slums in Delhi and the damage here would likely be extreme. Yet there are relatively low cost solutions. (Here's one link; I think I remember more as well: ) The problem is that nobody seems to want to talk about this except for a few days after a big quake hits elsewhere. In contrast, the Commonwealth Games have held the government's interest so much better.

  4. Hari-

    thanks for the link and you are right, our government is always reactive not proactive.