Why Was the Destruction So Severe?
Six weeks after the Haiti shock, Chile was struck by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake. It was 500 times more powerful than the Haiti quake, yet killed less than 1% of the Haitian total. In this section, we explore answers to the question: why was the Haiti earthquake so destructive?
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“The poverty in Haiti lends itself to people building where they want, how they can … not everybody’s going to be able to build to the exacting standards that a building code requires.”
–Cletus Springer, director of the Department of Sustainable Development, Organization of American States
Unlike in other countries located on or near fault lines, very few of Haiti’s buildings were constructed for earthquake resistance. An absence of building codes combined with a deficit of licensed contractors, engineers and architects contributed to a structural environment ripe for disaster. From informal housing to multi-storeys in downtown Port-au-Prince, collapsed buildings became death traps for thousands of Haitians. “The buildings were brittle and had no flexibility, breaking catastrophically when the earthquake struck,” said seismologist Ian Main. Along with hundreds of thousands of homes, all but one government building was destroyed by the quake, as well as with 60% of the country’s hospitals, and 80% of its schools.
“Better buildings would have saved lives.”
–Chuck DeMets, U.S. Geologist
An earthquake-resistant building costs 10-20% more to build than an unsound structure. For the millions of Haitians living on less than $2 a day, these added costs made safe construction an unaffordable luxury. The walls of 90% of Haitian buildings are constructed with either cement, earth, clisse (“sticks, twigs and branches”), bricks or stone. Contractors and builders often cut corners in construction, reducing costs by using easily available building materials such as limestone dust and unrefined sand, which produce a cheaper but weaker concrete. The vulnerabilities of these buildings were exacerbated by being constructed along hills and slopes, without proper foundations.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti (which make up the island of Hispaniola) are located next to a geological fault zone that scientists have long termed “a major seismic hazard” to the population. Michael Blanpied of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Earthquake Hazards Program describes Hispaniola as “caught between two tectonic plates [which are] shearing the island, crushing it, grinding it. And as that occurs, earthquakes pop off,” including a dozen in the region over the past fifty years. The January 12 2010 earthquake – the region’s most powerful in 200 years – originated only kilometers from Haiti’s densely-populated capital. Because of Haiti’s proximity to the fault zone, the aftershocks (40 so far) that followed the initial quake are likely to continue for months and possibly years, with “high chances” of another 5.0 magnitude quake, or higher.
Before the earthquake, half of Haiti’s population of 10 million lived in densely populated urban areas, including one in four Haitians residing in Port-au-Prince. This population density around the earthquake’s epicenter meant that an incredible half of the country’s residents were directly impacted by the quake. Many of those affected lived in the urban slums of Port-au-Prince, which were made more vulnerable by their lack of infrastructure and structurally sound dwellings. Haiti’s poverty and demographic pressures have also exacerbated the country’s environmental deterioration, which in turn has increased the population’s movement from the countryside to urban areas.
How did Haiti become so impoverished and vulnerable to natural disasters? You can learn more about the country’s background in this interactive slideshow of Haiti’s history.