Learning from Haiti – How far have we come?

The 12th January 2010 Haitian earthquake was the most devastating in the recent history of the Caribbean. At magnitude 7.0, 10 km in depth and just 10 km from the capital Port-au-Prince, the earthquake produced shaking that destroyed the poorly constructed structures causing the deaths of more than 230,000 persons (near 10% of the population of the city) and upwards of US$10B in damage. This should have been the wakeup call for a fundamental shift in regional mechanisms for coping with seismic hazards. Major earthquake disasters around the world (e.g. Sumatra 2004; Kobe, Japan 1995; Mexico City 1985 and Chile, 1960)have stimulated similar shifts and resulted in greater resilience to seismic hazards in these regions. This has not happened in the Caribbean and the region continues to be extremely vulnerable to seismic events.

Research suggests that the region is capable of generating an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 or larger every 3-5 years. Of more concerns, we are long overdue for a magnitude 8.0 earthquake, which has 32 times more energy than the Haiti event. In light of these sobering facts, it is imperative for the region to move expeditiously towards building resilience to such events. We must develop, legislate and enforce Building Codes using up-to-date seismic hazard maps based on the latest available science. Preparedness measures at the individual levels are insufficient and greater efforts are needed to facilitate self-resilience.

There have been advances. Regional disaster management agencies, such as CDEMA (Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency), have been increasing awareness efforts and educational campaigns. Model disaster legislation has also been drafted and is available to be customised by each territory. The effectiveness of the implemented strategy from country to country still needs to be measured. The need for broad based impact assessments for seismic hazards and risks is now greater than ever with clearly established short term and long term objectives. Every year that passes without the necessary measures being in place is a year closer to a repeat of the Haiti disaster. Now is the time to be ready.