Why Haiti’s Caribbean country is prone to devastating earthquakes

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The preliminary flood of a magnitude 7.2 earthquake in southwest Haiti killed 1419 people dead on Monday and injured more than 6,900, according to the country’s civil protection agency.

Why Haiti’s Caribbean country is prone to devastating earthquakes

People gather outside the Petit Pas Hotel, which was destroyed in an earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti, on Saturday. A magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck Haiti on Saturday, centering about 125 kilometers (78 miles) west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, the U.S. Geological Survey said. AP

Earthquakes have wreaked havoc in Haiti since at least the 18th century, when the city of Port-au-Prince was destroyed twice in 19 years. Saturday’s powerful earthquake killed hundreds and injured thousands more. Eleven years earlier, temblor killed tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands.

Haiti is located near the intersection of the two tectonic plates that make up the earth’s crust.

Earthquakes can occur when these plates move against each other and cause friction. Haiti is too densely populated. In addition, many of its buildings are designed to withstand hurricanes – not earthquakes. These buildings can survive strong winds, but are prone to collapse when the earth is shaken.

What makes Haiti vulnerable to earthquakes?

The earth’s crust consists of tectonic plates that move. And Haiti sits near the intersection of two of them – the North American plate and the Caribbean plate.

Several fault lines between these plates intersect at or near the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Worst of all, not all fault lines behave the same way.

“Hispaniola sits in a place where the plates move together from collision to sliding past each other,” said Rich Briggs, a research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey Geologic Hazards Science Center.

“It’s like a stone stuck in a sliding glass door,” he said. “It just doesn’t want to move smoothly because it has so many different forces.”

What caused the latest earthquake?

Saturday’s earthquake 7.2 magnitude probably occurred in the fault zone of Enriquillo-Plantain Garden, which intersects Haiti’s southwestern Tiburon Peninsula, according to the USGS.

It is the same fault area along which the devastating 2010 earthquake occurred. And it is probably the source of three other major earthquakes in Haiti between 1751 and 1860, two of which destroyed Port-au-Prince.

Earthquakes are the result of tectonic plates moving slowly against each other and causing friction over time, said Gavin Hayes, senior science adviser at the USGS on earthquakes and geological hazards.

“This friction grows and grows and eventually the strain stored there overcomes the friction,” Hayes said. “And then the fault suddenly moves. That’s what an earthquake is.”

Why can the earthquakes in Haiti be so devastating?

It is a combination of factors including a seismically active area, a high density of 11 million inhabitants and buildings often designed to withstand hurricanes – not earthquakes.
Typical concrete and ash block buildings can withstand strong winds, but are prone to damage or collapse when the earth is shaken. Poor construction practices can also be affected.

The preliminary flood of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in southwestern Haiti rose to 1,919 on Monday and more than 6,900 were injured, according to the country’s civil protection agency.

A powerful earthquake that struck early Saturday also destroyed more than 37,000 homes, authorities said.

The 2010 earthquake struck closer to the densely populated Port-au-Prince and wreaked havoc. The Haitian government estimates the death toll at more than 300,000, while a report commissioned by the U.S. government ranged from 46,000 to 85,000.

“I think it’s important to recognize that a natural disaster doesn’t exist,” said geologist Wendy Bohon, Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology. “You have a natural danger that overlaps with a vulnerable system.”

What will the future bring when it comes?

Geologists say they cannot predict the next earthquake.

“But we know that earthquakes like this can cause earthquakes of the same size in the next part of the fault,” Hayes of the USGS said. “And it’s a pretty significant danger in places where there are no building practices to shake.”

Building more earthquake-resistant buildings remains a challenge for Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Prior to Saturday’s earthquake, Haiti continued to recover from the 2010 earthquake as well as Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Its president was assassinated last month and sent the country into political chaos.

And while there are some success stories that Haitians have built more earthquake-resistant structures, there has been no focused work on this, said Mark Schuller, professor of anthropology and nonprofit and NGO research at the University of Northern Illinois.

The Haitian government has become increasingly weak, while NGOs are focusing on their own departmental projects.

“Haiti has technical knowledge. There are trained Architects. There are urban planners. It’s not a problem,” Schuller said. “The problem is the lack of funding for coordination and the lack of political will from donors (to aid organizations).”

Inputs AFP and AP

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