The death and injury of thousands of innocent people as a result of the M 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12th and the economic hardship of tens of thousands of Haitians that will surely follow in the near future is absolutely tragic. These people are not responsible for their suffering. But this suffering is not due to an “act of God” that no one could foresee.
While earthquakes are not as frequent as hurricanes in the Caribbean, they are common. Also, it is well known that poor design and construction practice results in buildings that collapse during earthquakes – killing and injuring the inhabitants and causing social disruption, sometimes for generations. Japan and the State of California have improved their building codes and construction practices and as a result, the lethality of earthquakes in both places has been reduced over the last century by an order of magnitude. 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 whom you had tried again and again to stop from 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. Wouldn’t it have been a wonderful symbol if the United Nations 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 that 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 program, 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.
How will impoverished Haiti pay for these programs? I propose that agencies soliciting funds for the response to aid recovery from the Haitian earthquake commit 10% of the amount that they collect to mitigating future earthquakes: to preparedness and prevention activities like mason training, public awareness programs, improved engineering curricula in local universities, geologic hazards mapping, and developing effective earthquake safety public policies. Why 10%? Because the rule of thumb is that each dollar invested in preventing natural disasters saves ten dollars in future damage.
If we fail to learn from this earthquake to do all that we can to prevent such losses in the future, that will be a second tragedy.