Scientists who study disasters would agree that this week's earthquake in Haiti was not a natural disaster but, rather, a man-made one. While the initiating event was "natural," the factors that have turned this 7.0-magnitude geological event into a catastrophe are entirely human, and can be reduced to one word: poverty.
In 1983, less than 5 miles from my parent's home, an earthquake of nearly the same magnitude, a 6.9, struck beneath the peak of Mount Borah in Idaho. It was, and still is, the largest earthquake in Idaho in recorded history, but I doubt many of my readers have heard of it. The population there is small and spread-out, but property damage, even in this sparsely-populated region was over $12.5 million. There were deaths: two children, killed by falling debris as they walked to school in the nearby town of Challis.
The event was truly major, lifting the peak of Mount Borah by at least 7 feet and opening up a huge crack, nearly 300 feet wide in places, that extended the length of the entire valley. And, yet, this earthquake is not considered a major disaster because the loss of life and property was limited. We speak of the severity of disasters using a social scale, because it is really social factors that determine how bad a disaster will be.
In Haiti we are seeing, as we did with Hurricane Katrina, the profound importance of social factors in so-called "natural" disasters. Scientists have known, for years now, the role that poverty plays in creating vulnerabilities to natural hazards. In his book "Disasters by Design," well-known disaster researcher Dennis Mileti summarizes the findings of disaster research and lays out suggestions for using these insights in future planning. It is not at all clear that any of this sound scientific advice is being implemented.
Poverty, associated with poor building construction and a population's ability to withstand conditions after the extreme event, can be considered the main predictor of a disaster's severity. Susan Cutter, an expert on the influence of social factors in disasters, writes persuasively about this in an article analyzing Hurricane Katrina:
"Disasters will happen. To lessen their impacts in the future, we need to reduce our social vulnerability and increase disaster resilience with improvements in the social conditions and living standards in our cities. We need to build (and rebuild) damaged housing and infrastructure in harmony with nature and design cities to be resilient to environmental threats even if it means smaller, more livable places, and fewer profits for land and urban developers and a smaller tax base for the city."
We would do well to heed the wisdom of these disaster-research experts as we think about why the catastrophe in Haiti happened. Those who would point the finger at God as somehow "causing" this, or even those who mockingly ask "Where is your God now?" would do well to consider the central role that humanity itself has played in creating the conditions that made this catastrophe inevitable. And entirely preventable.