Haiti: What Went Wrong

As the world braced itself for a colossal death toll and some newscasters professed shock that earthquakes are possible in the Caribbean, scientists who specialize in natural disasters found themselves shaking off a horrible case of déjà vu: a global community totally unprepared for a disaster everyone should have known was coming, and an impoverished nation decimated because of it.

In the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that caused a tsunami to ravage the shores of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and claim nearly 230,000 lives, there were outcries for better monitoring of natural-disaster high-risk zones and for effective early-warning systems where possible. In the years since, some progress has been made. The United Nations now has a system in place that regularly analyzes and updates natural-disaster risk levels across the globe. And the United States Geological Survey has established an earthquake and tsunami monitoring system in the Caribbean. While it's almost impossible to issue a useful warning in the moments before an earthquake like Tuesday's, regular monitoring does help scientists determine what areas are at high risk for a future event.

Not that such information was helpful in mitigating the current disaster—one scientists saw coming at least two decades ago. As far back as 1985, a group of Columbia University researchers dispelled the notion that the Enriquillo fault, which runs straight through the island of Hispaniola and hadn't moved in centuries, was inactive and did not pose an earthquake risk. Instead, they explained, the structure was merely stuck in place and could give way at any moment, causing a major earthquake. The findings led researchers to refine their models of risk assessment and adjust their seismic maps of the region. Just two years ago, another scientist, this one based in Cuba, issued a second warning, going so far as to predict an earthquake of 7.2 magnitude in Haiti sometime in the near future. Those forecasts did not seem to resonate with the tiny island nation, already beset by dire poverty and calamitous hurricanes. Despite the warnings, neither the local government nor the international community took steps to prepare.

I spoke with Arthur Lerner-Lam, associate director of geology and geophysics at Columbia University, about what should have been done but wasn't. "The hard lesson is that construction, urbanization, land reform—all the things we do in terms of development—need to take resiliency into account," he said. "There are hot spots around the world where poverty and natural-hazard risk are going to continue to produce these high-level disasters with high casualties, but we know where those hot spots are. So there's a lot more we can do before the fact to mitigate the human suffering.

"First, we should enhance earthquake/geophysical monitoring in civil areas around the world where we know there to be a reasonable to high earthquake risk; we need to make sure we have the instrumentation in place to capture the small tremors that are predictive of bigger ones," Lerner-Lam said. "Second, we need to build local infrastructure and scientific capacity so these studies can be carried out. Third, we need to work with local governments to implement preparatory measures, and when it's politically or economically impossible to do that at the local level, we have to act more preemptively at the regional level."

According to Lerner-Lam, there's no particular barrier to doing those things. Yes, disaster preparedness costs money, and yes, money is hard to come by in a nation where most people live on less than a dollar a day. But given the number of lives at stake (some quarter million in Banda Aceh, upwards of 100,000 in Haiti), and the relatively straightforward protocols we're talking about (fairly inexpensive monitoring equipment, slightly more expensive building materials, basic disaster preparedness, and so on), I'd wager that cost is not the rate-limiting factor. We've spent more money protecting fewer lives in less-impoverished places (think Colombia, for example).

The real issue, say Lerner-Lam and others, is not money but short attention spans. When it comes to developing-world tragedies, Americans and other observers from the developed world tend to lose interest quickly, allowing global leaders to tune out before cumbersome protocols or costly programs are implemented.

What to do now? One option is to acknowledge that these things don't come out of nowhere (after all, scientists did predict both the Indonesian and Haitian earthquakes, and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in the U.S.), and then to ask—and ask and ask—why nothing was done to minimize the risk faced by the world's most vulnerable people. Maybe then the political will and financial resources to make natural-disaster preparedness a priority will materialize.

The other option is to forget about it by month's end. Plenty of time to be surprised by the next disaster.