Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Unnatural Hazards.

Haiti, widely seen as a leading contestant on the reality show "World's Most Utterly Hosed Polity", got slammed by an M7.0 earthquake yesterday.

To put this in perspective, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 - also on a major branch of a strike-slip fault, also in the vicinity of a major city, has been estimated anywhere between 7.5 and 8.25. This was a big earthquake, but not a HUGE earthquake.We think of the Caribbean as being worked over by hurricanes, not earthquakes, but the tectonics of the region are nearly as nasty as southern California, and the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault system, the projected source of the movement, moves about 7 mm/year, "half the overall motion between the Caribbean plate and North America plate" according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Again, to give you perspective, the slip rate on the San Andreas Fault Zone is roughly 25mm to 30mm/year.One thing to think about, though, is that we're going to hear a lot about this as a "natural disaster". But earthquakes have been happening since tectonics first began some time about 4.3 billion years ago. Unless you were spectacularly unlucky, if you lived in a wickiup and hunted or gathered your food, you probably lived through big earthquakes.

But a couple tens of thousands of years ago we began building ourselves permanent houses. Those houses were fairly ramshackle things, and when the ground shook, even moderately, they fell down on us and killed us. As in the Libyan fable, by our own feathers, and not by others' shafts, are we now striken.

We're going to hear a lot of hand-wringing about how awful a "natural disaster" this is. There'll be the usual assistance, the normal pantsload of helicopters, doctors and Red Cross volunteers. But call me a nasty, cynical son-of-a-bitch, but what we WON'T see is what Haiti needed and needs.The last big strike-slip earthquake in the U.S. was Loma Prieta, 1989. Another M7.0, almost exactly the same as this one. Total of 63 dead, some four thousand injured. Lots of homes damaged.

I'll bet that the death toll in Port au Prince will be at LEAST in the low hundreds, probably in the low thousands, possibly even in the tens of thousands...with thousands more maimed or damaged in some way. In a quake almost exactly like the 1989 San Francisco event that killed sixty-fricking-three. Why?I'll tell you why. We have a pretty good idea how to design and build things to resist much earthquake shaking. In an M8+ all bets are off, sure, but for most quakes, we can design buildings and communities to get most people through the shaking alive.

But this takes money. And the political insistence to enforce building codes. And those two things are things that Haiti has in very, very short supply. So today, as always, many Haitians are dead who need not have died. Because in Haiti, as in much of the world, lives are cheaper than structural steel and people are more disposable than dimension lumber.

Sympathy, donations and talk are cheap. Changing the way the places like Haiti function is hellishly hard, and it seems pretty hypocritical to me to talk today about our sorrow for the victims of this while we were perfectly happy to ignore them before the first temblor because it would have required us to give a shit and do something about their crappy "government" and impoverished existence.

So this is an UNnatural disaster. Earthquakes don't kill people - people kill people. Or, to be precise, the buildings we don't build to a standard of practice kill people. Lack of building codes kill people. Governments kill people.We can regret this. We can grieve about it. But until and unless we - and, more specifically, the Haitian ruling classes - are willing to commit large amounts of our money, political will and time to reorder the way people build, work and live in Haiti, we cannot change it.


Charles Gittings said...

Unfortunately, in a poor place where substandard construction and ramshackle shantytowns are the norm, a 7.3 is more like a 9.5 in effect.

God help them.

Charles Gittings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ael said...

Alas, one needs a government before one can be governed.

FDChief said...

Charles: Let's hope that God will, because certainly no one else has.

Ael: Let's keep in perspective that there's more parts of the world with "governments" like that of Haiti's than there is like ours. And given our recent performance in New Orleans, the the lack of attention we're giving to our national infrastructure AND the current fervor for "privatizing" everything (i.e. turning things we used to distrust private contractors to do unsupervised because we understood that the temptation to steal would overcome the protection of the public over to the contractors themselves) we are not nearly as safe as we used to be.

People who live in glass houses near large strike-slip fault shouldn't throw stones.

Project Ni Hao said...

It's similar to constantly shipping food and water to an area in famine, when what that area really needs is a well, and that's something their government refuses to build. I understand that. In my post I was trying to look at it solely through the filter of having a tie with a place that is experiencing a disaster - natural or otherwise. The geopolitical situation in Haiti is the real disaster and all the relief efforts in the world aren't going to change that. But the wreckage, particularly when it's visited upon kids, is still awful to see.

FDChief said...

"But the wreckage, particularly when it's visited upon kids, is still awful to see."

Absolutely, absolutely. The issue I have with this is that the relief organizations and armies will come, the kids will get fed, the wounds bandaged, the tent cities set up...

...and then they will leave, leaving the same kleptocratic government, the same feckless ruling class, the same hopeless, impoverished people, the same, the exact same damn things that got all these people killed in the first place.

And we, the rich Westerners, will pat ourselves on the back for helping all those poor people and forget.

Until the next time.

Ael said...

The first step to social progress is to have a stable government. Nothing gets better in the middle of a civil war.

Alas, imposing governments on other people is tricky even if you have the best of intentions.

Of course, repeatedly saying that you have good intentions does not make it true.

Charles Gittings said...


I wasn't sure where to send my money either, but after looking around, I sent a donation to the ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross. They had a sizable mission in Haiti before the, and they already had a relief pipeline in place too. The only hitch is that they're a Swiss organization, so I don't know (or in my case, care) if they are tax-deductible here or not.

And they'll still be around when everyone else goes home. This is one of their primary functions.


ICRC update on Haiti

FDChief said...

Ael: Point taken.

Charles: Good link - I'll kick down a coupla bucks for the ppor bastards.

Lisa said...


Right -- you first must have a government. They've had a couple 100 in the past century or so, right?


I agree, it is hypocritical to wail about their ordeal now. Prior to this, most people disdained the Haitians as being bringers of AIDS and breachers of our borders; people to be deported back to their vile, deforested land.

Our "sympathy" is in atonement for the 1,000's of our own who died on our watch in N.O.