Haiti: We knew what to do even before the earthquake

Brian Tucker, President of Geohazards International (GHI) contributed this article to the Guardian. GHI’s work focuses on reducing loss of life and suffering due to natural disasters in the world’s most vulnerable countries, through preparedness, mitigation and advocacy.

The disaster that struck Haiti, in the form of an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, has delivered death and devastation, ruin and suffering, on a deeply tragic scale. But this was not an “act of God”, in that it was not an event that could not have been foreseen.

While earthquakes are not as frequent as hurricanes in the Caribbean, they are common. Today it is well known that poor design and construction practice results in buildings that are sure to collapse during earthquakes of this magnitude, killing and maiming those caught in them and leaving a trail of social disruption, sometimes for generations.

It’s like seeing an accident caused by a drunk driver you’ve tried repeatedly to stop drinking and driving.

Japan and the US state of California have improved their building codes and construction standards to reflect their seismic vulnerability, and the lethality of earthquakes in both places has been massively reduced during the last century. We know how to mitigate the devastating effects of earthquakes.

For someone like myself, who has devoted most of his professional life to reducing loss of life and suffering due to natural disasters, to see the images coming out of Haiti is like seeing the scene of an accident caused by a drunk driver you have tried repeatedly to stop drinking and driving.

The suffering of innocents is terrible to witness. But almost as terrible is the fear that government authorities will not learn and take corrective actions to keep this from happening in the future, elsewhere.

After taking care of the victims in Haiti, we should approach the people who allowed hospitals and schools to be constructed in ways that would collapse during an earthquake and ask them to do better, starting now.

Wouldn’t it have been a wonderful symbol if the UN building in Haiti had been properly built or retrofitted to resist earthquakes, and we could all observe it standing now? That could have taught many people the life lesson that we can plan for and mitigate against natural hazards.

It is not enough to “build back ­better”, and it is not enough to focus only on Port-au-Prince. After the ­victims have been treated, we should quickly focus attention and resources on ­reducing the consequences of the earthquakes we know will hit Haiti in the future.

Any foreign investments in infrastructure development should account for the risk of natural disasters. Any construction funded by foreign sources should involve local masons, who should be trained to build structures that can resist the effects of natural disasters.

A school earthquake safety programme, similar to California‘s, should be launched in Haiti. Laws should be passed that establish earthquake safety standards for hospital construction. A school-based public awareness campaign should educate the young about earthquakes and hurricanes, and what can be done to mitigate their effects.

Useful links

OECD Initiaitve on Earthquake Safety in Schools

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