Monday, March 01, 2010

Comparing earthquakes

The story of the destruction in Chile contrasts sharply from that of Haiti - at least in the way it is coming across in the news. Originally, the death toll stood at less than 100, far less than the numbers coming out of Haiti. True, the numbers have climbed, but still far lower than in Haiti. Part of this is also due to the high concentration of death include the most populous city in Haiti - Port au Prince, whereas the death toll was spread along hundreds of miles of coast and small islands - from which initial details were sketchy.

Too, the country of Haiti was unfamiliar with earthquakes and had little reason to build structures to withstand earthquakes (if memory serves,  Port au Prince didn't suffer an earthquake for over 200 years, whereas Chile suffers a major earthquake every 50 years or so. This meant that a lot of the infrastructure in Chile was able to withstand an earthquake that was nearly 3x stronger than those legally built (but devastated) structures in Haiti. This brings one to another point: many of the dead in Haiti were in slums on the slopes around the city - buildings and building layouts that were completely flattened in the earthquake. Therefore, infrastructure built to withstand earthquakes means you don't lose many people, however, it makes for a much weaker news story.

Add to the perception of Haiti being a continuously failed state since its independence 200 years ago, and this tugs on the strings of collective guilt throughout the Caribbean - it offers a romantic notion of a rebirth, its debts, which had crippled it for centuries, forgiven and help poured in to help the 'dirt poor' populace.

Compare this with Chile, a country standing at the door of OECD membership (the first in South America) and you don't have the same social story of failed states holding out its hands for the help of the world (NOTE: this is a "story" of the developed countries). Indeed, Chile's president, Bachelet, initially turned down financial assistance.

In all these ways - infrastructure, economy, and political stability - Chile's earthquake aftermath is a very different social and political story than Haiti. (That it is more than half a world away from Europe and the US and Canada probably also feeds into the differences.)

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