Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti: NOT a Natural Disaster

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.


  1. I have see a few others struggling trying to make this point - but you really nailed it. Humans can't stop earthquakes, but we can build homes and cities that aren't deathtraps. And even when there are no earthquakes, the result would be more liveable, sustainable and green living spaces.

  2. I'm now asking the question "If an earthquake happens in the middle of a forest and no one is around to feel it, is it a disaster?

  3. Thanks, Curt!

    As to this second question, maybe it's a joke, but I have an I always do. "Disaster" is a value-laden word, isn't it -- using it reflects our own view that the event is "bad" in some way. But earthquakes are not inherently bad or disastrous. Without them, we wouldn't have mountains, for example, or many other beautiful features on the earth's surface. So, if there are no people around to say "this earthquake is a disaster," then it is not - it's just an earthquake.

  4. Raima,

    You are spot on in identifying poverty as a major contributor to the toll. David Brooks made a similar point in his NPR commentary -- don't know if he heard it from you!

    All best,

    Clay @claynaff

  5. You are a humble genius! God Bless you :)

  6. yes, good point, but the 5 mile difference from the event in Idaho compared to Port au Prince makes these two an uneven comparison

  7. Thanks for stopping by, but I don't quite understand your comment. The 5 mile distance between my parents' home and the Idaho quake's epicenter isn't particularly relevant to the argument (it was relevant to them, of course, which is why I put that figure in). The USGS says the epicenter of the Haiti quake was 15 miles from Port au Prince. The main difference between these two events was the population.

    I think a better comparison for Haiti would be with the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in San Francisco, magnitude 7.1 and in a high-population area. As we have recently seen in Chile, too, many fewer people died because the buildings in SF were well-constructed.

  8. Appreciating your clarity and insight as always. The logic extends to any other "natural" event that we might attribute human-scale, value-added terminology. Just looked at USGS site and notice 'swarm' of 5+ quakes over the last week in Chile, along with other a few other global locations.

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