Tag Archives: earthquake

Disaster and disaster – Junot Diaz on Haiti

Junot Diaz, author of the fantastic novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, writes about Haiti’s earthquake in Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal.  The experience of Port au Prince was quite difference from Lyttleton, New Zealand response to their own earthquake.

Diaz writes:

The figures vary, but an estimated 220,000 people were killed in the aftermath of the quake, with hundreds of thousands injured and at least a million—one-tenth of Haiti’s population—rendered homeless. According to the Red Cross, three million Haitians were affected. It was the single greatest catastrophe in Haiti’s modern history. It was for all intents and purposes an apocalypse.  …

So the earthquake that devastated Haiti: what did it reveal?

Well I think it’s safe to say that first and foremost it revealed Haiti.

This might strike some of you as jejune but considering the colossal denial energies (the veil) that keep most third-world countries (and their problems) out of global sightlines, this is no mean feat. For most people Haiti has never been more than a blip on a map, a faint disturbance in the force so far removed that what happened there might as well have been happening on another planet. The earthquake for a while changed that, tore the veil from before planet’s eyes and put before us what we all saw firsthand or on the TV: a Haiti desperate beyond imagining.

Truth be told, I’m not very optimistic. I mean, just look at us. No, I’m not optimistic—but that doesn’t mean I don’t have hope. Do I contradict myself? Then I contradict myself. I’m from New Jersey: as a writer from out that way once said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Yes, I have hope. We humans are a fractious lot, flawed and often diabolical. But, for all our deficiencies, we are still capable of great deeds. Consider the legendary, divinely inspired endurance of the Haitian people. Consider how they have managed to survive everything the world has thrown at them—from slavery to Sarah Palin, who visited last December. Consider the Haitian people’s superhuman solidarity in the weeks after the quake. Consider the outpouring of support from Haitians across the planet. Consider the impossible sacrifices the Haitian community has made and continues to make to care for those who were shattered on January 12, 2010.

Consider also my people, the Dominicans. In the modern period, few Caribbean populations have been more hostile to Haitians. We are of course neighbors, but what neighbors! In 1937 the dictator Rafael Trujillo launched a genocidal campaign against Haitians and Haitian Dominicans. Tens of thousands were massacred; tens of thousands more were wounded and driven into Haiti, and in the aftermath of that genocide the relationship between the two countries has never thawed. Contemporary Dominican society in many respects strikes me as profoundly anti-Haitian, and Haitian immigrants to my country experience widespread discrimination, abysmal labor conditions, constant harassment, mob violence, and summary deportation without due process.

No one, and I mean no one, expected anything from Dominicans after the quake; yet look at what happened: Dominican rescue workers were the first to enter Haiti. They arrived within hours of the quake, and in the crucial first days of the crisis, while the international community was getting its act together, Dominicans shifted into Haiti vital resources that were the difference between life and death for thousands of victims.

In a shocking reversal of decades of toxic enmity, it seemed as if the entire Dominican society mobilized for the relief effort. Dominican hospitals were emptied to receive the wounded, and all elective surgeries were canceled for months. (Imagine if the United States canceled all elective surgeries for a single month in order to help Haiti, what a different that would have made.) Schools across the political and economic spectrums organized relief drives, and individual citizens delivered caravans of essential materials and personnel in their own vehicles, even as international organizations were claiming that the roads to Port-au-Prince were impassable. The Dominican government transported generators and mobile kitchens and established a field hospital. The Dominican Red Cross was up and running long before anyone else. Dominican communities in New York City, Boston, Providence, and Miami sent supplies and money. This historic shift must have Trujillo rolling in his grave. Sonia Marmolejos, a humble Dominican woman, left her own infant babies at home in order to breastfeed more than twenty Haitian babies whose mothers had either been seriously injured or killed in the earthquake.

Consider Sonia Marmolejos and understand why, despite everything, I still have hope.

After all, apocalypses like the Haitian earthquake are not only catastrophes; they are also opportunities: chances for us to see ourselves, to take responsibility for what we see, to change. One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen, and for once we won’t look away. We will reject what Jane Anna and Lewis R. Gordon have described in Of Divine Warning as that strange moment following a catastrophe where “in our aversion to addressing disasters as signs” we refuse “to interpret and take responsibility for the kinds of collective responses that may be needed to alleviate human misery.” One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen and for once we will heed the ruins. We will begin collectively to take responsibility for the world we’re creating. Call me foolishly utopian, but I sincerely believe this will happen. I do. I just wonder how many millions of people will perish before it does.

Community resilience after an earthquake

Disasters have complex effects on communities. Love in a Little Town is short film about community resilience made by James Muir. He writes:

Lyttelton is the port for Christchurch City, New Zealand, that was devastated by an earthquake in February this year. In this time of great loss, Lyttelton and its community stood out as being resilient, organised and sustainable. It already had the community connections, timebanking, resource sharing and a cooperative arts community. ”

Love in a Little Town from James Muir on Vimeo.

via Rob Hopkins on the Transition Towns weblog.

Seven Reflections on Disasters and resilience from around the web

1) The Boston Globe’s Big Picture photo blog has pictures of Japan one month after the quake & tsunami

2) Andy Revkin comments on DotEarth on the limits of Japan’s disaster memory in response to a fascinating Associated Press article by by Jay AlabasterTsunami-hit towns forgot warnings from ancestors.

3) And Andy Revkin also wonder’s whether nuclear power is simply too brittle to be a resilient power source.

4) Richard A. Kerr writes in Science Magazine article Long Road to U.S. Quake Resilience about recent NRC report that argues that it is underfunding programs to develop resilience to Earthquakes.

5) New York Times on how Danger Is Pent Up Behind Aging Dams. Apparently of the USA’s 85,000 dams, more than 4,400 are considered susceptible to failure, but governments cannot agree on who should pay for renovations.

6) Bob Costanza and others write in Solutions magazine on Solutions for Averting the Next Deepwater Horizon.  They argues that sensible resource development should require resource developers to purchase disaster bonds to capture true social costs of resource development

7) In New York Times Leslie Kaufman writes on complexity and resilience of Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystems response to BP Oil Spill.

Massive cost of Japan’s disaster

The earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster in Japan is likely to be the most expensive disaster since disaster estimates began in 1965.  Over recent decades disasters have generally had a decreasing death toll, but an increasing economic cost.  The Sendai earthquake follows these trends.  The Economist reports:

Provisional estimates released today by the World Bank put the economic damage resulting from the disaster at as much as $235 billion, around 4% of GDP. That figure would make this disaster the costliest since comparable records began in 1965. The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which caused some 250,000 deaths, does not feature on this chart. Economic losses there amounted to only $14 billion in today’s prices, partly because of low property and land values in the affected areas.


Impacts of the 2010 tsunami in Chile

UPDATE: Here is a link to a video to Prof. Castilla’s talk (via @sthlmresilience)

03:34 a.m. February 27th 2010. Suddenly, a devastating earthquake and a series of tsunamis hits the central–south coast of Chile. An earthquake so powerful (8.8 on the moment magnitude scale), that not only is the fifth largest recorded on earth, but also moves the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina, 10 feet (!) to the west.

Juan Carlos Castilla from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, recently visited Stockholm, and gave an update about the tsunamis’ impact on coastal communities. The effects of the tsunami were devastating, and the death toll from the 2-3 tsunamis alone was between 170-200 in the coastal areas of regions VI, VII and VIII. The most noticeable biophysical impact in the region is the elevation of the whole coastal area, ranging from 1.5 to 3 meters. This obviously has had big impacts on the composition of species and vegetation on the coast. The impacts on coastal ecosystems and fisheries is however still unclear.

Based on extensive field studies two months after the disaster, Castilla and his research team noted that only 8-12 (about 6%) of the 200 deceased where from fisherman families. According to Castilla, this low figure can be explained by the existence of strong social networks, and local knowledge passed on from generation to generation. As an artisan fisherman in the study, summarized one shared local saying:

“if an earthquake is so strong you can not stand up: run to the hills”

Luckily, February 27th was a night of full moon. This allowed people to more easily run for protection in the hills. According to Castilla, the combination of full moon, local knowledge, and strong bonds between neighbors, made it possible for members of fishermen communities to rapidly act on the first warning signal: the earthquake. The fact that locals also were taught not to leave the hills after at least a couple of hours after an earthquake, also helped them avoid the following devastating tsunamis. Unfortunately, visitors and tourists in the tsunami affected coastal areas, were not.

Read more:

Marín, A et al. (2010) ”The 2010 tsunami in Chile: Devastation and survival of coastal small-scale fishing communities”, Marine Policy, 2010, 34:1381-1384.

Gelchich, S et al. “Nagivating transformations in governance of Chilean marine coastal resources”, PNAS, 107(39): 16794-16799.

See Henrik’s post just the days after the Chilean earthquake here.

Haiti a year after the quake

The strong 2010 Haiti earthquake had its epicentre near Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. It killed about 230,000 people, injured another 300,000, and made another 1,000,000 homeless a huge impact on a country of 10 million. The earthquake caused an estimated $10 billion worth of damage, more than Haiti’s annual GDP, a huge impact on a small, poor country.

The Big Picture photoblog has a great collection of photos from a year after the quake:

Soccer players from Haiti's Zaryen team (in blue) and the national amputee team fight for the ball during a friendly match at the national stadium in Port-au-Prince January 10, 2011. Sprinting on their crutches at breakneck speed, the young soccer players who lost legs in Haiti's earthquake last year project a symbol of hope and resilience in a land where so much is broken. (REUTERS/Kena Betancur) #

New York Times has a collection of aerial photos that show Haiti before the quake, immediately after, and now.  They also have the stories of six Haitians in the year after the quake.

NPR has a collection of stories on the post-quake recovery.

Michael K. Lindell writes in Nature Geoscience on the need for earthquake resilient buildings. He writes:

Usually, the poorest suffer the most in disasters that hit developing countries, but this may not have been so in Haiti. The lowest quality housing experienced less damage than many higher quality structures. Specifically, shanty housing made of mixed wood and corrugated metal fared well, as did concrete masonry unit structures made of concrete blocks and corrugated metal roofs. These inexpensive shacks probably had a very low incidence of failure because they are such light structures. At the other extreme, the most expensive seismically designed structures also seem to have performed well, but for quite different reasons. Although they were heavier, they had designs that avoided well-known problems, and the materials used in building were of adequate quality and quantity. It seems to have been the moderately expensive structures, built with concrete columns and slabs, that were reinforced, but concrete block walls that were not. Such structures frequently experienced severe damage or collapse because their builders cut costs with inadequate designs, materials and construction methods.

The relationship between building cost and seismic safety thus seems to be not just non-linear, but non-monotonic. That is, people can spend their way into hazard vulnerability, not just out of it. To avoid this problem, three main requirements must be met. First, earthquake risk maps are needed to identify the areas where seismic-resistant construction is required. Second, building codes must then be adopted, implemented and enforced. Finally, insurance is required to fund rebuilding after an earthquake in which building codes have saved lives but not buildings.

Today, mitigation of earthquake hazards is not held back primarily by a lack of engineering solutions: architects had access to manuals for seismic-resistant design for nearly 20 years at the time of the Haiti earthquake. But substantial further research is needed to examine how people can be convinced to make use of existing options for achieving physical and financial safety — especially in areas, such as the Central United States New Madrid seismic zone, that have earthquake recurrence intervals of hundreds of years. Implementing risk-management strategies for coping with such low-probability, high-consequence events will require innovative public/private partnerships.

Ultimately, even the poorest countries must regard building codes as necessities, not luxuries. Moreover, even relatively wealthy countries need to develop more effective strategies for managing seismic risks. This will require collaboration among earth scientists, social scientists, earthquake engineers and urban planners.

Chile – destroyed and reorganizing

An earthquake and following tsunamis destroyed great parts of Chile, killing people, ripping apart families, and affecting infrastructure, business, politics, animals and ecological relations. This is my short report on thoughts and fears of the reorganization phase, based on following Chilean television and Swedish news flows.

The proportions of the destruction due to the tsunami that came 30 minutes after the earthquake are beginning to emerge as first journalists (2 days), and later aid workers and military forces are working their way down the southern cost of Chile (3 days) . The area of destruction seems very big, now spanning some 300-500 km. Many, many of the villages and tourist spots along the coast that in many ways define the sense of Chile as a country by the sea, are almost completely destroyed. I have attached a link from the national television of Chile.

A debate is arising criticizing the authorities for responding slowly. In fact, two days after the earthquake journalists were the first to arrive to these devastated villages. There are no proper water sources, food or electricity. Also, there is a debate concerning why there was not a proper warning of the tsunami from the Chilean military navy responsible for this task. People in the destroyed areas, being from a country that has experienced earthquakes and tsunamis before and having been trained in school, immediately ran to the hills, which could explain the low number of dead people; but still mourned every one. However, there are rumors that the Chilean Navy sent a faxed message to the national emergency organization which was not properly interpreted. Thirty minutes after the earthquake, eye witnesses have reported of a set of three tsunami waves, the first being some 4-5 meters in height, others claiming 8 metres, came rolling in, pushing some 2 km in land, moving boats, houses, and washing those humans not in safety with it.

What is interesting here is not resilience in itself. For sure, the Chilean society will reconstruct and start working in some way the weeks, months and years to come. In contrast to Haiti, the state is not destroyed, but fully functioning and with more resources and capacities; and with the crucial capacity to capture and steer international capital and aid organizations. Instead, what is interesting is the trajectory of resilience.

After this type of crisis, old habitats and common-days of so many people are ripped apart, and so many forged relations between both humans, species and machines are lost or loosened, speeding the whole of society – and in fact ecologies – into what ecological theorist like Buzz Holling would refer to as re-organization where different scales of dynamic processes (political, social, ecological) would structure re-organization. Social theorists, for instance Anthony Giddens would perhaps rather highlight how “the normal” has vanished, and how novel structuration processes are in play.

What type of new social relations will be forged, which old ones will be lost and what type of social structure will emerge in the wake of this crisis? Will the social system be less or more inequitable? What chances are there that many of these villages will not return but that people, in face of no jobs or a house to live in in the coming months, will move to Santiago where certainly many already have family and friends? And how will the crisis rearrange the relations between social and ecological systems?

What will for instance happen to local fishermen resource rights now in the hands of the local “sindicatos” and “las caletas”? What seems to be a strenght in this respect is of course that these sindicatos are organized on a greater scale (nation wide) which should grant some greater possibility for sustained collective action to secure these rights for returning fishermen collectives, as would be argued by social movement theorists like Melucci, Diani, and Tarrow.

I would appreciate anyone with more information on emergent initiatives outside the state and business sectors that are mobilizing for a progressive and equitable reorganization phase, to let me know.

Shift in state powers. One worry – or at least important factor – to understand what could come to structure the “reorganization phase” is a coincidence in the transition of state power (all complexity fans will see “punctuated equilibrium” lights blinking). In a few days Chile is shifting from a 20-year long rule by the left-centre coalition of Michelle Bachelet (since the defeat of dictator Augusto Pinochet), to the right-wing rule of Sebastian Pinera, the latter having promised in elections less interference of the state in societal development. What relevance has the (panarchy-inspired-/-marxist) “shock doctrine” hypothesis of Naomi Klein to do with this shift of political rule at the same time as an external shock? Will Pinera seize the opportunity and blame the earthquake so as to pull back some of the social and state-led reforms like education and large-scale social security systems that were put in place by the centre-left coalition under its rule? What framings of reality will Pinera support and actively strive to construct? Will it be one where business “should” play a leading role in reconstruction? One where deregulation of state health insurance and health care will “need to go” or at least not be expanded? Initial response is that he has decided to remake his whole 4-year plan and focus on the reconstruction of Chile, by some estimated to take between 20-30 years, but it is difficult to interpret what his plan means (or what the time period of 20-30 years means for that matter).

What social movements and sustained collective action processes can put enough pressure so as for the most marginalized of Chilean society to access state resources for the reconstruction of their communities, shools and economic outcomes? Surely the self-organizing capability of local groups will be important to access control of resources (the fishermen caletas are crucial), but if these are not linked across time and space, it will be difficult to sustain pressure and hopes for a better future, as the (new) common-day and normalization starts socializing the lifes of Chileans. As above, if anyone has information of such emergent social movements (including the role of unions, fishing sindicatos, NGO’s and similar), I would be most interested to hear.

I see a parallel here (post-crisis social movements) with how Manuel Castells conceptualized urban social movements – as struggles over public consumption (not production, which was the struggle over the means of production).

Something good coming out… Of course research has demonstrated that these crises “could lead to something better”, but I am very reluctant to frame what is happening in Chile or Haiti, or any region thrown into sudden crisis in those terms. Of course something good could come out; everything is possible right? But to frame this as an opportunity for anything is a slap in the face for all those that have lost family members, their home and community; and a disrespect to the dead. As belonging to a world elite as we academics do, I find it very important to reflect upon how we participate in shaping how things are viewed. If something good comes out, that something “good” will always be contested, and it will always have come out out of some kind of social struggle; i.e. persons forming collectives that can win power to reorganize into more equal – by some rationale – communities and societies. That something good is consequently not something that is just happening, with equal opportunities of turning good or bad, but a contested outcome forged out of social and political struggle. A multitude of actors are now grouping in Chile forging novel relations to carry out intended actions, which nonetheless will produce unintended consequences. To frame this as something good or bad is simplistic and could just come to play in the hands of some.

Like many, I am siding with the masses and the marginalized, and I try to understand the factors that will tend to structure reorganization towards a more unequal society.

As a final remark in relation to Haiti, which did not spur this activity in me. I have family in Chile (whom are all safe) and I feel therefore more emotionally affected, although what is going down in Haiti is in ways similar.


PS. A lot of events are currently structuring the reorganization phase at different scales. From my biased media view, here are some:

1. A Swedish reporter reported that in Curico a local radio-station became the nucleus of self-organization just after the earthquake coordination initial aid work and monitoring the situation. This later lead to that soup-kitchens was established at the radio-station gathering the city in mutual relationships of aid and solidarity.

2. In Concepcion the opposite seemed to have occurred. There bands of people robbed shops of food, TV-sets and refrigerators and were stealing from evacuated houses. This made others to arm themselves to protect property and family, leading to the shooting of several. Things calmed down when the army arrived and enforced a 18 hour curfew (for the first time after Pinoche the army was used for this bringing (in me and probably many Chileans) old haunted memories.

3. A 24 hour national TV show “Chile auyda Chile” was held to gather money for the reconstruction, following an old tradition in Chilean society to redistribute money through having the rich donating money to the poor administrated through the state. This was en event that gathered the nation, with the flag, the hymn, celebrities, president and soon-to-be president and with interviews of fishers and villages mourning their dead but with the strong belief to continue (“seguimos adelante”), and displaying help-workers, fire fighters and the army helping people. Just a few days after the big catastrophe, people – even in the most destroyed areas – had a party, quite amazing; and probably a general spirit-boosting event.

The event managed to gather a lot of money (30.1 billion pesos or $59.2 million), and the day after some of those that had robbed the stores in Concepcion, came voluntarily and returned some of the goods; some even making an excuse to the owner, some in public television.

Resilience to Earthquakes

In response to the high number of school children killed in school collapses in the recent Sichuan earthquake, Andrew Revkin writes in the New York Times about the challenges of enhancing resilience – even when the problem and solution are well understood – in his article A Move to Turn Schools From Earthquake Death Traps Into Havens:

… The main challenge in bolstering resilience to such geophysical shocks, Ms. Wang, Mr. Tucker and many other experts said, is not the structural engineering. There is no mystery to adding and securing iron rods in concrete, securing floors to beams, boosting the resilience of columns, monitoring the size of gravel mixed with cement.

It is not cost, either. In California, Dr. Tucker notes, the premium for building earthquake resistance into new schools is less than 4 percent. The payoff, beyond saved lives, is significantly lower repair costs after a temblor — 10 to 100 times less than in unimproved buildings. (In poorer countries, the differential in cost could be substantially higher, other experts note, but the payoff, they say, is priceless.)

Rich or poor, the big challenge lies in overcoming social and political hurdles that still give priority to pressing daily problems over foreseeable disasters that may not occur for decades, scores of years, or longer. In some developing countries there is a tendency to ascribe earthquakes and their consequences to fate, but Dr. Tucker and other experts say that lets the authorities off the hook.

“I can’t hold a government responsible for protecting its citizens against a meteorite falling out of the sky,” Dr. Tucker said. “But I can and do hold a government in a country with known seismic risk responsible for protecting its children, who are compelled to attend school, from the school collapsing during an earthquake.”

Dr. Tucker has written or co-written a lengthening string of reports pointing to the building risks worldwide as more populations shift to urban areas, often into shoddy, hastily built structures, with children sent to schools in similar, and often worse, condition.

Arthur Lerner-Lam, who maps disaster risks at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, agrees that urbanization in earthquake zones is setting the world up for its first true megadisaster — a million-casualty earthquake that many seismologists say is only a matter of time. The greatest risk, he said, lies in a belt from Italy and Turkey through central Asia and the Himalayas into central China.

In such regions, Dr. Tucker said, the best blueprints and materials are no guarantee of safety without adequate building codes, laws, training, inspections and enforcement.

The biggest challenge of all may simply be redefining security, and building societies that demand that government investments match risks, said Fouad Bendimerad, an engineering and risk-management consultant in California and chairman of the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative.

“The typical government spends around 15 percent of its G.D.P. to defend against exterior military threats that may never occur during the lifetime of generation,” Dr. Bendimerad said. “Why do we want to exonerate governments from dedicating a small portion of that 15 percent to protect against the threats of natural hazards that we know will happen?”

Peter Hessler’s Sichuan Postcard: After the Earthquake


Yang Weihua/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Peter Hessler, author of the excellent book Oracle Bones and a former English teacher in Sichuan province in China, writes in the New Yorker about the response to the recent Chinese Earthquake Sichuan Postcard: After the Earthquake:

This week, it’s unlikely that there will be much good news coming from China. But the rescue crews will, one hopes, make progress, and there may be reason for some Sichuan-style optimism. First, it seems that the Chinese government has been relatively open about news coverage, and it doesn’t seem to be restricting e-mails and phone calls. Second, the scale of destruction could easily have been worse. The epicenter was near the city of Dujiangyan, which in May of 2001 started construction on a massive hydroelectric dam on the Min River. Big dams are common in China, and Dujiangyan was one of the nation’s “Ten Key Projects” aimed at producing electricity and better water supplies.

By 2003, there were signs that the government was quietly expanding the project, and silt had begun to accumulate at a second location on the river. Dujiangyan is home to a local irrigation system that has functioned for more than two thousand years and has been declared a World Heritage site; it would have been effectively destroyed by the new dam. The city’s World Heritage Office opposed the project, contacting journalists from Chinese publications. The press was allowed to report with relative openness, in part because it portrayed the dam as destructive of cultural heritage. But one of the local entities that openly opposed the dam was the Dujiangyan Seismological Bureau.

In August of 2003, dam construction was forced to stop. In the history of the People’s Republic, this represented the first time that an engineering project on such a scale had been cancelled because of public pressure. (For a full account, see “Unbuilt Dams,” by Andrew C. Mertha and William R. Lowry, published in the October, 2006, issue of Comparative Politics.) Today, with Dujiangyan in ruins and the government struggling to respond, there’s some small consolation in the fact that at least there wasn’t another major dam on the site. And maybe later, after the emergency has passed, officials will remember the importance of the press and the seismological experts in stopping the dam. Sichuan’s greatest resource has always been its people, and sometimes the government just needs to listen to them.

Hessler also wrote about China’s Instant Cities in last year’s National Geographic, and on What’s Next on development in China in the May 2008 issue.