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The Haiti and New Zealand Quakes: A Fair Comparison?

Posted by Lindy on September 5, 2010

At first look, the earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand on Saturday was the spitting image of the one that ravaged Haiti in January.

  • Each was a powerful magnitude 7.0 quake, and
  • each occurred on a strike-slip fault
  • near a major population centre.

But the similarities end there. Reports out of Christchurch have been almost miraculous: Though the city suffered extensive damage, not a single person out of nearly 400,000 appears to have died. By contrast, the Haitian capital city of Port-au-Prince was flattened, and a quarter of a million people were killed. There remains immense suffering in the country, nearly eight months later.

There are two main reasons for this extreme contrast in events: luck, and preparedness.

First, a closer look at the two quakes reveals an important geological difference. The epicenter of the Haiti quake was just 16 miles from downtown Port-au-Prince, while in Christchurch the tremor struck more than 30 miles away.

New Zealanders were also lucky because they were at home, asleep in houses built up to the country’s stringent building codes when the quake hit at 4:35 a.m. local time. “The old buildings downtown were the ones that got beat up, which is what you’re seeing all those pictures of,” Yanev said. “There’s some luck involved that people weren’t around when parapets were falling off buildings.”

And of course, there are the building codes themselves. Straddling the boundary of the Australia and Pacific tectonic plates, New Zealand regularly experiences powerful, damaging quakes, and the government has made certain that all modern buildings are built to withstand strong shaking.

In Haiti, there are no building codes to speak of.

“There are basically four places in the world — California, Japan, Chile, and New Zealand — that are serious about earthquake design, and that’s it,” Yanev said.

Of course economic standing has a lot to do with it; New Zealand is far better off than chronically-impoverished Haiti.


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