Haiti earthquake was not an anomaly

May 11, 2010, 1:01 a.m.

A group of experts motivated by the earthquake that struck Haiti in January, killing more than 200,000 people and rendering an estimated one million Haitians homeless, gathered here on Monday to discuss methods for communities to recover from and prepare for earthquakes.

The panel consisted of Reginald DesRoches, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Arrietta Chakos, director of the Acting in Time Advance Disaster Recovery project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government; and Brian Tucker, founding president of GeoHazards International.

DesRoches traveled to Haiti nine days after the earthquake as part of a group charged with performing assessments on the structural integrity of critical buildings such as hospitals and schools. He last saw Haiti 25 years ago as a teenager.

“Driving from airport to where were staying, the extent of damage was completely worse than I’d anticipated,” DesRoches said. “Pretty much everyone you talked to had lost a family member, pretty much everyone in the city of Port-au-Prince. The poverty clearly contributed to the extent to which the earthquake impacted the city.”

While some people might see Haiti as an anomaly in terms of the damage that earthquakes cause, Tucker cautioned that the earthquake in Haiti could be an example of similar disasters in the future.

“Some people looking at Haiti and contemplating the disaster that it caused in human and fiscal terms tend to optimistically hope that it was a freak event, a total outlier,” he said. “But everything that I’ve seen is saying that Haiti is not an outlier but just a harbinger of what will come.”

“I think that we have so much to learn from Haiti,” Tucker added. He suggested that one of the challenges is rapid urbanization in less-developed countries, where the structural safeguards against earthquakes simply are not present in the buildings where people live and work. Tucker also said people need to become more educated about earthquakes and their causes.

“One of the biggest surprises that I’ve found in my 19 years of working in this field is that so many people do not understand the science behind earthquakes,” he said. “Earthquakes are not meteorites coming out of the blue, hitting who knows where, for which there can be no preparation or expectation. All of us here know, especially any of us in California, that faults are where earthquakes occur and they will reoccur.”

With respect to introducing earthquake safety standards to communities, Chakos said one of the best places to start is with schools.

“We’ve seen with our work with GeoHazards International that schools become the gateway drug to risk mitigation,” she said. “After the 1989 earthquake, people in the Bay Area were sensitized to the issue of seismic events. This led people in Berkeley to become very involved to risk mitigation, and, for us, the work started with school safety.”

Chakos and GeoHazards International conducted a thorough reexamination of school buildings and found that many of them were not earthquake resistant.

“After a few years, the Berkeley school district mobilized parents to become sensitized and aware of the risks that we faced, which led to the passing of hazard mitigation taxes over 10 to 12 years that paid to rebuild every public school in Berkeley,” Chakos said.

Jaclyn Lee, a master’s student in civil and environmental engineering who was at the panel event, was curious to know what lessons were learned in the wake of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

“I thought it would be especially interesting to hear a discussion of what measures and research is going on to mitigate the effects on structures, and from a bigger picture, on the community from earthquakes,” Lee said.

But the part of the lecture that appealed to Lee the most was its emphasis on education. She agreed that it is important to “start with the teachers and students.”

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