Why Chile's Stronger Earthquake Won't Be as Deadly as Haiti's

Yes, the quake that struck the coast of Chile this morning was about 100 times stronger than the quake that devastated Port-au-Prince in early January. But initial reports put the death toll in the very low three digits—120 as I’m writing this. And while that number is certain to climb in the hours and days ahead, no one is expecting the calamitous destruction and loss of life that we’ve seen in Haiti, where 230,000 are already dead. How can that be?

A few reasons. First and most obvious, the construction in Chile is far better than construction in Haiti. A popular saying among seismologists is that “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.” Chile’s buildings are better built, constructed with better materials, higher-skilled laborers, and an eye toward earthquake resistance. They are therefore more earthquake-resistant. Significantly fewer of them collapsed than in Haiti, so fewer people died.

The second reason is that, unlike Haiti, Chile is accustomed to earthquakes. It has what those who work in disaster preparedness call “earthquake consciousness.” The country sits at the boundaries of the Pacific and South American tectonic plates, and it experiences an average of one magnitude-8 quake a year. As several media outlets have already noted, the largest earthquake ever recorded, a 9.9, occurred in the same region. Globally, quakes of 8.8 or higher are pretty rare. But if there’s any country that would be expecting one, it’s Chile. Chilean officials being interviewed on CNN seem awfully calm and collected (especially compared with the chaos and dread in Haiti) for the day of a huge temblor.

A corollary is the tsunami consciousness all around the Pacific Rim. The Chile quake launched a wave, but early-warning systems installed on the beaches it is expected to strike—Oregon, Hawaii, Alaska, and perhaps nations across the ocean—will notify seaside inhabitants of the danger hours before the wave arrives.

That wary preparedness, in Chile and elsewhere, means the earthquake triggered well-worn protocols that will be implemented in the hours and days ahead. Prefabricated shelters will be erected, injuries will be treated promptly, and fewer people will suffer and die as a result. Having been through this before, Chile has equipment available—and people who know how to use it—to clear rubble and dig victims out of the rubble right away. So while it may have suffered the greater shakeup, the consequences won’t look anything like Haiti's.

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