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Haiti's 2010 earthquake killed hundreds of thousands. The next one could be worse

Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Ten years ago, when Haiti was hit by its worst natural disaster in more than a century, the country didn't have its own earthquake surveillance network.

It does now. The problem is, the 10 foreign-trained quake monitors who work there can't stay in the building that houses the unit overnight because it is not earthquake resistant, and even if it were, there isn't enough money to pay anyone to spend the night.

When the ground shakes again, they'll have to run out of the facility's only exit.

"Am I scared? Well, that's the job. I have to do it," said Claude Prepetit, 68, Haiti's foremost earthquake expert and as close as the country gets to having an in-country seismologist. "The conditions are not ideal ... but we have to do it. We have an entire nation that's waiting on us to give them information."

Prepetit is not actually a seismologist. He's a geologist and the director of Haiti's Bureau of Mines and Energy, and supervises the small seismic monitoring team inside the one-story structure in the city of Delmas. The city is part of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area that was decimated by the catastrophic magnitude 7 earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010.

Before the quake, Haiti had to consult the global U.S. Geological Survey for information on earthquakes larger than magnitude 4. Since Prepetit set up the network in 2011, Haiti now receives information broadcast via satellite from solar-powered seismic stations dotted around the country, and via internet from a network of seismometers that record tremors in real time. The seismic team analyzes the data and issues bulletins on quake occurrences and the potential for future earthquakes.

 

The 2010 quake caused more than 100,000 structures to crumble and created enough rubble to fill five football stadiums. At the time, Haiti had no quake-resistant building codes or in-depth understanding of its vulnerability. There are four major fault lines and many secondary ones crossing the country, which sits on two tectonic plates. As the plates slowly move past one another over time, stress builds up. The Leogne fault that caused the 2010 quake was previously unknown.

Since the devastation, there has been progress, though. There is Prepetit's seismic surveillance network, as well as active-fault and hazard maps, tsunami evacuation routes in the northern region and the first class of students soon to graduate with a master's degree in geoscience from the State University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince. There is also considerably more knowledge about how the country's various soil types, when combined with the effect of an earthquake, can liquefy and cause the ground to behave like quicksand in certain regions.

But for every bit of progress, there is plenty that has not been done to prevent a repeat of the cataclysmic disaster that claimed more than 300,000 lives and left 1.5 million people injured and another 1.5 million homeless.

"We do not have a national disaster risk management plan. We do not have a national plan to reduce the seismic vulnerabilities," Prepetit said. "There is not a plan that says it is mandatory that they do awareness in all the schools and teach them what to do before, during and after. All of these are weaknesses that we have, which means that the next earthquake, if it's of a high magnitude, well, the damages will be considerable."

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