GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Preparation for earthquakes makes major difference

Friday, March 5, 2010 | 11:55 a.m. CST; updated 10:10 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism: This week we’re going to discuss the aftermath of the earthquake in Chile, but first, here is a bit of trivia. Since the quake last week, the earth has been spinning faster, and it has become more tilted on its axis. But don’t worry about that. Each day has been shortened by one and one-quarter millionth of a second. We’re not going to notice that, and neither are we going to notice that slight tilt change, but here is something we can all worry about. Why is it easier to predict the coming of other natural disasters like hurricanes than it is an earthquake and the resulting tsunami? Why did the Chilean earthquake Feb. 26, although it was 500 times more powerful, do far less damage than the earthquake in Haiti almost two months ago? Those are the questions we’re going to try to shed some light on today. Let’s start with Professor Sandvol. Professor, why is it that the sciences of seismology or geophysics or geological science cannot develop better procedures for predicting these tragedies?

Eric Sandvol, associate professor, geological sciences department, University of Missouri; Columbia: The earth is extremely complicated. You can’t measure anything that shows that an earthquake is coming on a short time scale. Unlike a hurricane that we can watch and monitor from satellites, there is no precursor that would tell us that an earthquake is coming. What we have to rely upon is forecasts, not entirely unlike your weatherman making a forecast of some percentage of rain.

Loory: What is it that we have to learn about before these forecasts can be improved?

Sandvol: We have to learn exactly how the earth is deforming along these fault zones and how the fault zones behaved in the past. Putting together a very complete record of how often larger earthquakes occur on fault zones can be very challenging, especially in places like Chile where we haven’t had historical records to go back as long as many other places, like China and the Middle East.

Loory: The New York Times has a story saying that the fault line is really in the political situation in Chile right now. Apparently this earthquake has created a lot of political problems for the outgoing president Michelle Bachelet.

Eva Salinas, editor, Santiago Times; Santiago, Chile: The initial criticism was that there wasn’t the warning of the tsunami that followed the earthquake. We’re looking at how much destruction or loss of life could have been prevented. Chile is no stranger to earthquakes, so you would think they would be prepared, but it is a tough time for the government because it has one week left. It is a very political issue right now.

Loory: There is concern about soldiers in the streets, and there is a concern that this is going to mean more of a move to the right in Chile. Is that correct?

Salinas: The sentiment towards the Pinochet era, military on the streets, the former military dictatorship causes such great emotions in everyone. It runs so deep that perhaps the government was afraid to turn to the military. I don’t think that now the military is seen as a threat per se. We’re certainly watching to see that they don’t abuse their position.

Loory: How is Haiti now coping with the aftermath of the earthquake?

Trenton Daniel, staff writer, Miami Herald; Miami: The country is still trying to recover from the earthquake. Haiti is going into the rainy season, and there are not enough tarps or tents. As many as a million people have lost their homes, and it is becoming more and more worrisome by the day in terms of disease and illness. There is also fear that there could be mudslides.

Loory: It is said that the reason there was so much more destruction and death in Haiti is because the infrastructure did not exist beforehand and also because building codes were not really obeyed. Is that the situation?

Daniel: Yes, absolutely. There was not much of an infrastructure in place at all prior to the earthquake. You haven’t really seen much investment in the infrastructure whether it be in Port-au-Prince or in surrounding cities. As a result, you have this sort of shoddy city that is held together with bubble gum and scotch tape.

Loory: The entire Pacific Coast is subject to earthquakes, and there is some planning beforehand going into building infrastructure and preparing for earthquakes in places in California. Is that believed to be effective, or is there still more to be done?

Matt Weiser, staff writer, Sacramento Bee, Sacramento, Calif.: There are enormous efforts, but the task is just so large that there is a great amount of work left to do. One of the issues in California is retrofitting hospitals to withstand earthquakes. There are hundreds of hospitals that aren’t up to the current seismic code. Another problem at the moment is California's budget problems.

Loory: Tell us what has been done to make tsunamis more predictable since the big tsunami that took place after the earthquake in Indonesia in 2004.

Sandvol: In terms of prediction, we’re in the same boat as we are with earthquakes. There is no magic precursor to predict a tsunami ahead of time. The advantage we have is that the tsunami waves travel a lot more slowly than seismic waves. In some cases, when you’re dealing with very large oceanic basins like the Pacific, you can give many hours advance notice to Hawaii and Japan.

Loory: As I understand it, this earthquake was predicted to have a much more devastating tsunami than actually took place? Why is that?

Sandvol: Part of the answer could be the location of the earthquake. In this case, most of the movement from the ground occurred on land, not underwater, so it didn’t generate as large a tsunami as thought.

Loory: Why do you think there was not as much destruction in Chile as there was in the '80s even though the earthquake was much more powerful?

Sandvol: An earthquake is a lot like real estate – it’s all about location. If it occurs in a region that has not made the investment, you’re going to have an enormous amount of damage. The Haiti earthquake is a perfect example.

Loory: Did you get the feeling that the Haitian people and the Haitian government feel that the rest of the world has some obligation to Haiti to prevent this kind of thing from happening again?

Daniel: I know the government and the people certainly welcome help from the international community. The government realizes that it can’t do it alone. I think that the United Nations realizes that it can’t do it alone either. This earthquake has caused unparalleled devastation, and so you’re going to have to pull people from all different parts of the world in order to get Haiti back on its feet again.

Loory: Does Chile need any help from outside?

Salinas: They have asked for help in the last couple days in terms of equipment and communication devices. For supplies of food and water, it is a matter of distribution. The more the better, but at the same time, resources are limited. One of my initial thoughts on Saturday was, there are a lot of resources in Haiti that need to stay there, so we also need to keep that in mind.

Loory: What do you think the state of California and people who would be involved in earthquakes have learned from the Chilean and Haitian experiences?

Weiser: One thing they will be looking at is the performance of residential buildings in Chile. Chile’s building code is actually superior in some ways to California’s. Another thing they will be looking at is the ports. As we saw in Haiti, there is very important infrastructure you want to survive so you can get materials into the country, get people out and so forth.

Loory: What advice would you give to earthquake-prone areas of the world to be ready for these disasters?

Sandvol: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In places like Haiti, we really need to go in with resources from the international community. This is a tragedy that has repeated itself again and again in relatively poor countries. I think we could do a lot more towards trying to understand these seismic hazards and to work towards seismic hazard mitigation.

Loory: What about here in Missouri? We have the New Madrid fault here, which I understand is pretty dangerous. Is that something that should concern us, and should we be preparing in this part of the United States for a major earthquake?

Sandvol: Unlike all these other places, we really don’t understand the hazard all that well. Along the New Madrid, there are a number of what we call interplate seismic zones. They’re a transient kind of phenomenon, and it is not clear even what causes them.

Loory: I have to say that it is going to be a long time, as Professor Sandvol just told us, before we learn to prepare better for coming earthquakes. But there is still a lot that can be done beforehand and in the aftermath to make the world a safer place. That means improving human nature even if the science cannot be improved.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Melissa Ulbricht, Tim Wall and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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