‘Catastrophe of Major Proportions’

Jan. 14, 2010, 12:08 a.m.
Victims of the earthquake in Haiti struggle to find aid and regroup in the aftershock. It is estimated that the devastating quake killed thousands and injured tens of thousand more. (MATTHEW MAREK/American Red Cross)
Victims of the earthquake in Haiti struggle to find aid and regroup in the aftershock. It is estimated that the devastating quake killed thousands and injured tens of thousand more. (MATTHEW MAREK/American Red Cross)

A magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti late Tuesday afternoon, inflicting major physical damage and causing what its ambassador to the U.S. called a “catastrophe of major proportions” for the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. According to multiple sources, Haitian leaders fear that tens of thousands may have died in the event and its aftermath.

Professors Dissect the Quake

Civil and environmental engineering Prof. Anne Kiremidjian said several factors made the earthquake devastating to the island nation and its capital, Port-au-Prince.

“First, it was a 7.0 earthquake — a major earthquake — which means there is strong shaking near the fault,” Kiremidjian said. “[This type of earthquake] causes 30 kilometers, maybe even 40 kilometers of fault to move relative to one another, and the epicenter was roughly 15 kilometers from Port-au-Prince, which implies that the city was subjected to very strong ground vibrations.”

To make matters worse, much of the construction in Port-au-Prince was done with poor materials, compounding the damage caused by the earthquake.

“There has been a lot of growth in Port-au-Prince in the past 10 years — [a growth of] close to two million people,” she said. “People built quickly, used raw materials and built in any way they could. These structures provided very little strength against the earthquake.

“Given the strong ground vibrations, this problem was compounded by the lack of seismic codes,” she added. If there are any seismic codes, she later clarified, they were certainly not enforced.

Even engineered structures like hotels, office buildings and bridges were not built for earthquakes, according to Kiremidjian.

Geophysics Prof. Paul Segall also attributed the major damage in Haiti to poor construction.

“I read this morning that the mayor of Port-au-Prince had said many of the buildings just collapse [even] without earthquakes shaking — that’s just a recipe for disaster,” Segall said.

Segall cautioned, however, that even more damage could follow in the days after the initial seismic activity. In an earthquake of this magnitude, he indicated that aftershocks are a cause for concern.

“You always have aftershocks after these kinds of earthquakes,” he said. “As a general rule of the thumb, the largest aftershocks are about 1.5 times smaller than the original earthquake — so, in this case, about a 5.0 [aftershock].

“But even with an aftershock of a smaller magnitude, if the buildings are already damaged, you don’t want to take a chance with being in that building,” he added.

While the Caribbean is not usually considered a seismic danger zone, earthquakes have struck in the area in the past. Major seismic activity in the region, however, is separated by hundreds of years. With high levels of poverty, a poor economy and a particularly active hurricane season, the Haitian government was more concerned with being hit by a hurricane — not an earthquake.

Regardless, Kiremidjian believes scientists should have anticipated an earthquake before Tuesday’s disaster struck.

“Seismologists should have been worried about it, given that the country is right at the border of the Caribbean plate and the North American plate,” she said. “There were no earthquakes for a long time — conditions were ripe for another earthquake.”

Geographically, most of Haiti lies on the Gonave microplate, a thin slice of the earth’s crust between the North American plate to the north and Caribbean plate to the south. The fault, according to Segall, is very similar in structure to the San Andreas Fault along the Californian coast.

“It’s a strike-slip fault, which means that the motion is horizontal,” Segall explained. “And the earthquake was reasonably shallow, which means it is close to buildings and causes a lot of damage.”

Drawing a local comparison, Segall said Tuesday’s quake in Haiti was very similar to the Loma Prieta earthquake that Stanford and the Bay Area experienced in 1989. “Even though current undergrads are too young to remember, it’s still fresh in our minds as professors,” he noted.

But, while the Loma Prieta quake killed 63 people, casualties stemming from Tuesday’s earthquake are estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The main difference is that construction in California is much more resistant to ground shaking, Segall said.

While Kiremidjian stipulates that current efforts will focus on search and rescue, she emphasized that proper construction will be critical when Haiti begins to rebuild. “It’s not a question of just pouring money in,” she said. “They need proper structures and education to help local people build these proper structures, which is not a small challenge.”

For now, however, she said Haiti faces a dire situation.

“The main problem is that there is no emergency response system, and hospitals have been damaged,” Kiremidjian said. “Local United Nations forces have been trying to help, but it’s just not enough because the problem is so widespread. They need many more people to help them out, but it won’t be until first response teams get there that the major relief efforts will begin.”

Stanford Lends a Hand

Only hours after disaster struck, the events in Haiti drew tremendous student response across the Stanford campus. With family members still in Haiti, several students found themselves personally affected by the quake.

“I found out [about the earthquake] Tuesday afternoon, and it was a really hard time for me and my family — we had to wait to get phone calls from our relatives in Haiti,” said Patricia Arty ’10.

“I was really lucky to have gotten confirmation and to know that all my relatives are alive, but this was not the case for most people in the country,” Arty added.

“I haven’t heard anything particularly bad, but I haven’t heard good news either,” said Elijah Frazier ’12, who has relatives on the island. “It’s still a touchy subject for the family.”

While some students anxiously awaited phone calls to find out if their family members were even alive, others made headway in an effort to amass funds for the forthcoming relief efforts.

“The Caribbean Student Association is holding a focus group on Friday at noon to figure out a plan of action — I’ll be there,” Frazier said. “Alpha Phi is also taking some steps to help out in the relief effort, but aside from that, I’ve taken some steps of my own. I’ve texted and donated to the Red Cross and Yele Haiti.” He noted that students have donated money to relief efforts simply by texting “Haiti” to 90999.

Arty also indicated that Dance Marathon is asking its participants to donate to Partners in Health, which was founded in Haiti.

Sylvie Rousseau ’10, whose family lives in Haiti, drew attention to the aftermath of the earthquake and the nation’s plight.

“The very fact that the loss of life cannot be quantified as it can be in any other place is telling,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “The U.N. headquarters, the airport control tower, the presidential palace, hospitals, my cousins’ schools and even our churches are destroyed. Even before the earthquake, there was no reliable water, phone or power service.”

While Rousseau was shocked that so much bad luck could strike one place, she concluded that “immediate foreign relief and support is the only hope if ever development is to be resuscitated there.”

Rousseau reported that all of her immediate family is safe — some having escaped the earthquake by only hours to fly back to school — although the homes of her neighbors are demolished. One great-aunt perished in the aftermath, and her survivors scrambled to arrange for a funeral in the midst of coping with homelessness.

“It is uncertain how burial of the dead can even happen under these circumstances,” she said.

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