Voices: From Haiti to Japan: A tale of two disaster recoveries

by John C. Mutter
Monday, March 5, 2012

A year ago this month, a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck northern Japan. Two years and two months earlier, on Jan. 12, 2010, a much smaller earthquake devastated Haiti. Both earthquakes occurred on a weekday and in the afternoon, but there is very little else that is similar about these two events or how the countries have recovered. Both offer reminders about the uncertainties of the effects of disasters.

Firstly, the geology of the two quakes is different. The Tohoku event was far larger, at magnitude-9.0. It occurred on a thrust fault at a subduction zone. The Haiti quake was magnitude-7.0 and is thought to have occurred on a set of blind thrusts associated with a major strike-slip fault. One produced a tsunami; the other did not.

Secondly, both places seem to have been equally ill-prepared, but not for the same reasons. Japan is used to earthquakes and tsunamis but was not prepared for a tsunami of this magnitude. Wave heights reached 45 meters. The country was prepared, but perhaps not well-enough prepared. Although arguably no country could prepare for such an event.

In Haiti, the problem was one of utter lack of preparation, although it is hard to blame them. The last comparable earthquake in Haiti occurred more than 200 years ago. In addition, the country is one of the poorest in the world. It is reasonable for the government to place earthquake preparedness low in its overall priorities, given the multitude of daily challenges that nation faces.

How does one compare damages and the “toll” of these earthquakes? Despite its smaller size, the death toll in Haiti was far greater than in Japan. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan killed between 15,800 and 20,000 people. In Haiti, the death toll remains quite uncertain. Initially put at 300,000 or more (greater than deaths from the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004), the figure has been disputed and may be less than 100,000 — still a tragically large number.

The long-term consequence of these disasters is where the story takes an interesting turn. It may surprise you, but there is no accepted theory for the macroeconomics of natural disaster shocks. Almost always, the absolute size of immediate losses will be much larger in wealthier countries than in poor ones. But does that mean that wealthier economies are hit harder than poorer ones?

It is hard to get good figures for Haiti, but the losses might be $7 billion to $14 billion, whereas in Japan, the number may be $300 billion. Obviously, the toll in Japan seems much worse. But it’s not: The losses in Haiti amount to perhaps twice the GDP there, whereas even the very high-end estimates in Japan suggest about 4 percent loss compared to GDP. The losses seem greater because Japan is so much wealthier — the world’s third-largest economy; Haiti is one of the world’s smallest. Because the Japanese economy is more than 500 times larger than the Haitian economy, it can withstand a bigger hit.

Not so for Haiti. The economy there has essentially no buffering capacity. There is almost nothing to “get going again” after the disaster. After two years, only 43 percent of the $4.59 billion promised in aid has been received and disbursed, according to the United Nations. Because of the perverse way economies are measured, Haiti may not look like its economy has suffered very much. It sounds callous (and it is), but if the economy was unconscious to start with, a disaster can’t make it more so.

Meanwhile, Japan is well on the way to recovery. It now looks like the anniversary date will be one on which the nation can celebrate a return to near normal. It took Toyota only six months to get back to 95 percent production. The dire warnings of economic collapse in Japan and a global ripple effect have proven unfounded. How can such a devastating natural disaster be dealt with so swiftly? The answer is twofold: Japan dodged a bullet — the disaster did not strike in a region that was key to its economy, but in a relatively isolated and largely rural region — and its economy, despite showing almost no growth for decades, is still large and has huge buffering capacity.

As natural scientists our impulse is to make probability-based “predictions” of the likelihood of severe natural events — how large they might be, where and when they might occur. Our hope is that this information can be used to reduce the risk of harm from these events. But the harm they bring does not end with the trauma of the event itself, and their magnitude does not predict their harm. Their coda can be long or short. Harm can be quickly repaired or permanent. As uncertain as we may be about the occurrence of natural extremes, we are vastly more in the dark about the nature of the harm they can bring.

Natural scientists often work in splendid isolation, then hand off the data into the ether in the hope that some good might be made of it by others. Natural disasters are at once physical and social phenomena. Understanding their consequences requires research at the intersection of the natural sciences and social sciences — in both fields simultaneously.

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