Haiti devastated by major earthquake

by Bernard Langer, with additional reporting by Megan Sever
Thursday, January 5, 2012

A magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck Haiti at 4:53 p.m. EST on Tuesday, causing widespread damage. The earthquake occurred approximately 15 kilometers southwest of the densely populated capital, Port-au-Prince. Early reports indicate severe devastation. The quake is the largest ever measured in Haiti and yet another of a series of disasters to afflict the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

“It is a very significant earthquake,” says Dale Grant, a geophysicist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo. Contributing to the expected damage, Grant says, is the fact that the earthquake struck less than 10 kilometers beneath the surface. Multiple aftershocks measuring up to magnitude 5.9 continue to strike the island nation.

With communications disrupted, no casualty numbers are yet available, but a photographer for the Associated Press reported a hospital collapsing in the Petionville district of Port-au-Prince. According to AP, the Haitian president’s chief-of-staff, Fritz Longchamp, says “buildings are crumbling right and left” near the national palace and the palace and government buildings are damaged. Another report says that a U.S. government official saw houses falling into a ravine. Other reports say the city went up in dust. The Haitian ambassador to the United States is calling the quake a “major catastrophe.”

U.S. President Barack Obama has mobilized relief efforts: The State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Southern Command started coordination efforts in the hours following the quake.

The dearth of news so far is not a good sign, experts say. “As I sit at my computer, trying to learn more about the earthquake, the alerts of magnitude-5-plus aftershocks every 20 minutes or so keep coming in,” says Mary Lou Zoback, vice president for Earthquake Risk Applications with Risk Management Solutions in Newark, Calif. “We are all desperate for more information and fear what the paucity of information and communication implies about the scale of the catastrophe. Surely the nearly continuous jolts of aftershocks are making the nighttime rescue efforts a nightmare.”

Haiti is a seismically active area. The island nation sits at the border of the North American and Caribbean plates. There are two major strike-slip faults: the Septentrional fault zone across northern Haiti and the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system, which runs across southern Haiti. According to USGS, the earthquake seems to have struck along the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system. Earthquakes there “are quite common, but nothing of this magnitude,” Grant says. “This is the largest quake in this area. In 1751 and 1770 there were two very significant quakes, but back then, there were no seismic instruments, so they can only estimate the magnitude.”

Haiti is not prepared for this kind of devastation. Millions of people live in flimsy self-constructed shanty homes, stacked up along steep hills, Zoback says. That kind of infrastructure is very vulnerable; it collapses in the kind of earthquakes that just struck, she says. “This substandard construction cannot stand up to the frequent hurricanes, landslides and earthquakes that strike so many capital cities in Latin America, including Port-au-Prince.”

Although the situation in Haiti is only just developing, the disaster was exacerbated by the fact that the earthquake struck so close to the urban center — the greater Port-au-Prince area has about 2 million to 2.5 million people, at least 1.9 million of whom were likely exposed to violent shaking, according to USGS' shakemap system PAGER, says David Applegate, the Senior Science Advisor for Earthquake & Geologic Hazards at USGS in Reston, Va.

"It's just terribly sad," Applegate says. "I hate to see what the dawn will bring."

Another concern is how frequently we’re going to see this in future, Zoback says. In recent decades, “there has been a huge exodus from the countryside to the major cities, particularly in the developing world,” she says. “Most rural poor in developing countries head for a better life in the capital cities, which represent the main economic engine of the country.” In Haiti, a quarter to a third of the population lives in the capital area. And 80 percent of the entire country’s population lives under the poverty line, she says.

Estimates suggest that one-sixth of the world's population (about 1 billion people) lives in squatter cities, and by 2030, 2 billion people will live in shantytowns, she says. “This tragedy now being unveiled will doubtlessly be repeated over and over again. The natural disaster may vary, but the most vulnerable population and structures will remain very similar.”

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