When we actually need a superhero, they’re not there.

08/04/2012 § Leave a comment

Why was the Haitian earthquake so deadly?

Nature Vs. Haiti

On Wednesday, January 12, 2010, a terrifying earthquake struck Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, immediately sending the country into a flurry of disaster and death. Around 230,000 people died because of the earthquake. The death toll was incredibly high – so high that the smart people stopped and wondered, “Oh. Was the earthquake that bad?” The answer is: Yes, for Haiti? Oh, yes.

Read more. It’s quite depressing but always enlightening, dreadfully fascinating and something important that you really should know.

You just should.

What Just Happened?


Haiti was always prone to earthquake hazards, a potential threat that could occur, but this event turned out to be a major disaster, a natural or man-made catastrophic event that causes great damage or loss of life. One of the reasons the earthquake was so bad for Haiti is because of Haiti’s location on the planet. Haiti is situated in the middle of the Caribbean, right next to the boundaries of the Caribbean and North American plates, two of the many tectonic plates that make up the face of the earth. The boundaries of these plates are vital to the geography of the earth because of the kind of damage they can cause. Plate boundaries are where the action happens in earthquakes; where the movement occurs. Picture the Ring of Fire, a perfect example of plates and plate boundaries.

The Pacific Ocean is surrounded by countries that deal with a lot of earthquakes such as New Zealand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, the West coast of North America, Chile, etc. etc. These countries deal with a lot of potential earthquakes because they are located right on top of the plate boundaries. In plate boundaries, three kinds of earthquake movements occur. These are divergent movements, in which plates move away from each other, convergent movements, in which the plates move towards each other (and make mountains in the process), and transforming movements, in which the plates slide against each other. Haiti’s case is particularly unfortunate because it is surrounded by the Caribbean plate and the North American plate and gets all types of plate movements.

Note that the epicentre of the earthquake was at Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince. It also just so happens that Port-au-Prince is located on the Enriquilla-Plaintain Garden fault, a visible cracks on the earth due to earthquakes where pressure is released.

Being located on a fault increases the intensity of the damage that can be done. Say for example that the earthquake happened in the countryside of Haiti where there are no faults. Because there is no fault that will release the earthquake’s pressure, that countryside would receive a lower intensity of damage compared to Port-au-Prince. Haiti’s location right next to plate boundaries as well as right on a fault increased the intensity of the damage done by the earthquake. And that’s only part one.


Haiti, A History

Don’t stop there – I’m not done yet. If Haiti’s economic development kept Haiti from having the ability to financially support themselves in the aftermath of the earthquake, Haiti’s history acts as a huge setback to Haiti’s development. Haiti was in debt (when you owe someone money because you previously borrowed that money) to America for the longest time — and for a lot of money, too; 1.2 million dollars, to be exact. This ridiculously large debt was because of previous hurricane-victim support needs, a settling between leaders that resulted in a new leadership and large economic changes that then started a downward spiral for the country itself.

– As a country prone to hurricane hazards, Haiti’s economy isn’t helped whenever it needs to support and use its money to save its people after a particularly bad hurricane. This then requires money.

– Once, America stepped in to settle a rivalry between two Haitian dictators. This ended with Jean-Bertrand Aristide taking leadership again on the condition that the U.S. provide a sort of subsidy, a certain amount of money given by a government to aid a cause, to Haiti. This added a large amount to the debt that Haiti would have to pay.

– Then, when the subsidy provided by America sent the local farmers out of business and into the slums, the riots began, people suffered and Haiti wasn’t developing in any sense at all. Basically, she had borrowed a lot of money to no avail and no advantage.

Haiti’s previous choices, decisions made based on the options available, took heaps of money away from the country’s economy, putting them in a lot of debt and not in the best economic situation. This really affected Haiti’s ability to help and support its country during the time of the earthquake and will affect Haiti’s ability to save itself in the face of future hazards.


The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time

A huge factor that affected the death toll and the amount of damage done by the earthquake was the time that it occurred. When it comes to hazards and disasters, the time of the event plays a large role and makes matters relatively better or completely worse. The time of the day links directly to a potential victim’s vulnerability, which is a person’s susceptibility to or chance of getting into harm’s way or danger. It at first doesn’t seem like it but the time of day affected the earthquake’s death toll greatly.

If we perhaps take an average family of four as an example (two parents, two kids) and give them a life: school, work, and their everyday tasks. If the earthquake occurred at 8PM or 9PM on a random Thursday, where would the family be? Most likely they would be at home perhaps watching TV, doing some work, reading a book – they could be doing anything but most importantly, the entire family would be together, at home, where they know where the others are.

Compare this to, say, around 4PM to 6PM in the late afternoon. This is rush hour. Rush hour is bad. Think about it. Let’s put the same family in that situation. Mom has just finished locking up her self-run restaurant and is taking the train home, Dad’s driving home after a long day of meetings and email-responding, Tommy is on the bus after basketball practice at school and his little sister Chloe is being driven home after ballet lessons with her friend, Lola. Everyone is out and about and more importantly: everyone is separated. If an earthquake were to happen at that moment, the time decreases the family’s entire survival rate because no one knows where who is and everyone will worry, keeping them from thinking straight. Being separated from one’s family is the worst for an earthquake and this happens mostly during rush hour (as well as other times).

Circling back to Haiti, the earthquake occurred at 4:53:10PM at the epicentre. Judging by the time, it’s quite safe to assume that many of the people would have been out and about, prone to danger during the earthquake. The time definitely affected the disaster done by the earthquake. People were vulnerable at the time of the earthquake. The time of the event made the victims vulnerable, which made them even more prone to hazards and the coming earthquake disaster.


Two Minutes Later…

Another reason that the death toll was so high for Haiti was because of the earthquake’s aftermath. Every earthquake has its aftershocks, which are smaller earthquakes following the main shock of a larger earthquake. With a level of economic development like that of Haiti’s (to be discussed in just a few seconds), most of the infrastructure of the country is shanty, or crudely built. If the buildings in a country aren’t stable enough without an earthquake in the first place, how would they handle an earthquake? If Haiti can be used as any proof then crude houses and shacks are no match to an earthquake’s initial shock and after shocks. The initial shock may have been the worst of the earthquake but the aftershocks just kept adding to the damage. If a house was lucky enough to stay up during the initial shock, chances are the aftershocks took care of it. Usually the aftershocks aren’t so bad in an earthquake (the initial shock typically does the worst of the damage) but as an anomaly, or something that doesn’t fit in with others, Haiti took the worst of the aftershocks. The aftershocks of the Haiti earthquake therefore caused further damage that could have been avoided, making the disaster all the more dreadful.


[Insert Econ. Flashback Here]

Wait – so the damage that the aftershocks caused could have been avoided? Actually, yes, they could have been. If the Haitian government took risk assessment (understanding what you’re at risk for) steps and had some form of risk mitigation, which is what you would do to make sure your country doesn’t suffer as badly because of a hazard, the death rate wouldn’t have been so high. The Haitian earthquake was so deadly because Haiti wasn’t ready for it at all.

To get a very brief look on Haiti’s level of development, we can look a few indicators such as its GDP per capita (Gross Domestic Product per Capita, or a country’s GDP – gross domestic product – the total value of goods and services in a country during one year – divided by the population, which gives an average), life expectancy (the amount of years a person can live), fertility rate (how many children are born per women) and literacy rate (a percentage of the people who can read in the country). Let’s compare Haiti’s stats to that of Norway, a well-known MEDC (more economically developed country).

The literacy rate of Haiti is a good indicator of the economic development of the country. Norway for example has a literacy rate of 100%. This means everyone over the age of 15 can read and write. Haiti’s literacy rate if 52.9%, meaning that a little bit over half the people in the country is literate.This data shows that Haiti is an LEDC (a less economically developed country). People not being able to read suggests that there is no stable educational plan established by the government that can put Haitian citizens in school. This means that the average Haitian isn’t educated on their own country’s susceptibility to earthquake hazards. Not having knowledge about earthquakes keeps that citizen in the dark and when it comes to an actual earthquake, they won’t know a thing about where to go, what to do and how to act. Education is a huge part of risk mitigation and Haiti then didn’t have a strong educational system that could teach her people about earthquakes and drills.

If Haiti were more economically developed and had a good, stable educational system, the number of people that could have saved their own lives or others’ lives could have been larger and the death toll could definitely have been reduced by thousands. In contrast, Japan is very strong in this sense because the government has had a risk mitigation plan for years involving educating their people about very likely hazards so that they could save themselves when the time came.

If only Haiti were more economically developed with a strong economy, she would have the ability to allocate, or distribute, its sources to have stronger infrastructure, a better educational system and healthier citizens. The consequence, or the results of an earlier action, of having a weak economy took its toll on Haiti during the earthquake when Haiti couldn’t support or save itself in the aftermath of the disaster.

It’s All Over

It’s kind of obvious now. There were so many things that played a part in making the Haiti earthquake one of the most terrible disasters in the history of the planet. It was particularly tragic for Haiti because of the country’s location on plate boundaries and faults, the time of the event, the aftershocks and constant bits of destruction that kept happening after the earthquake, Haiti’s development and Haiti’s history. There were too many things that came into play during this event and Haiti just wasn’t ready. So many lives were lost and if anyone can take anything away from this tragic event, it is that in the face of danger, it is so vital to be prepared, as an individual citizen, as a family, as a government and as a country.

This is just a bit depressing.

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