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Why did so many people die in the 2010 Haiti earthquake?

On the 12th January 2010, a tragic 7.0 magnitude quake on the Richter scale struck near Port au Prince in Haiti. This devastating earthquake was caused by a conservative plate boundary that had not caused an earthquake for 200years. 3,500,000 people were affected by the quake, 220,000 were estimated to have died, and over 300,000 people were injured. Over 188,383 houses were badly damaged 105,000 were destroyed by the earthquake (293,383 in total) and 1.5m people became homeless.

After the quake, there were 19 million cubic metres of rubble and debris in Port au Prince which was enough to fill a line of shipping containers stretching end to end from London to Beirut (The capital of Lebanon). Furthermore, 4,000 schools were damaged or destroyed and 60% of Government and administrative buildings, 80% of schools in Port-au-Prince and 60% of schools in the South and West Departments were destroyed or damaged. The impact of this was one of the most devastating anyone had ever witnessed. However, why did the San Francisco earthquake (Loma Prieta) in 1980 which was a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter scale only cause 69 deaths compared to the death toll of 220,000 in Haiti?

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The area with the most damage, Port-au-Prince, was built on loose sedimentary rock, which amplifies the seismic waves and intensifies them. We can see how much extra damage the loose sediment does as houses that were built on a hard rock that was closer to the fault line survived, but houses in Port-au-Prince that were built on loose sediment 15 miles away did not. The focus was only 13km deep so the quake did not lose much energy when it reached the surface.

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Before the earthquake, Haiti was already overly populated. In 2008 up to a million people were made homeless after four hurricanes struck around the important town of Gonaives in as many weeks. Therefore, the hurricanes of 2008 forced hundreds of thousands more people to flood into the capital Port-au-Prince because of the need to find a job as the country was very poor so only in the capital was there a chance of finding employment. .

On other hands, there were 300,000 people in San Francisco when the earthquake took place compared to 3million in the over-populated and crowded Port-au-Prince. Because of the fact that it was necessary for thousands of people to flood into Port-au-Prince, many houses were built rapidly and hurriedly on marginal land to supply housing for the migrants because of rapid urbanisation. Marginal land is very dangerous as it can cause amplification of the quakes and landslides during and after the quake which can cause many more deaths.

This leads to housing. Since the buildings built on marginal land in slum conditions, the earthquake houses were destroyed by landslides. Furthermore, the actual houses were not built correctly. Because of the fact, people were not educated about earthquakes and buildings, when buildings were built they saved money and built the buildings cheaply without enough steel support in most buildings. Most houses were self-built- they were out of breeze blocks and scrap, with no foundations or rules restricting height. Many houses were built on steep hillsides. The consequences of this were disastrous. It caused pancaking from buildings, which is when the pillars of a building give away and the roof collapses on top of the floor. As a result of this, the earthquake demolished 50% of Port-au-Prince’s buildings. This also crushed or trapped people inside the buildings and killed the majority of people. In addition, Haiti had no rescue service to save some people who required medical help immediately after the quake since it had financial difficulties.

The buildings were death traps in Haiti. However, in 1913 the U.S.A. introduced life-safe buildings which were designed to save lives during an earthquake. Some of the regulations were that buildings required special emergency doors, which have designed dimensions and special features such as the safety glazing identification requirements for the glass in the building. They also have strong foundations and reinforced pillars to prevent collapsing in an earthquake.

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An example of a life-safe building is the Transamerica Pyramid. It had been built life-safe to withstand earthquakes, and during the San Francisco earthquake, it swayed more than 30cm but was not damaged in any way. Its triangular design gave it a wide, stable base and its steel frame allowed it to stay. This way, by using life-safe buildings, people will not be trapped in buildings or crushed to death, unlike Haiti.

Poverty was another problem that San Francisco did not have to face. 66% of the population of Haiti earn less than £1 a day with 56% of the population being classed as extremely poor. In addition, many of the population of Port-au-Prince are uneducated and work in informal jobs (jobs without a contract) around the city. Haiti is now officially the poorest country in the western hemisphere. People get so desperate that they eat mud cakes to stop themselves from feeling hungry. On the other hand, the U.S.A. had a GDP per Capita of $22,039, compared to Haiti which a GDP per capita of $1,200. This meant that the U.S.A. had to money to educate people to be more aware of earthquakes and how they can design buildings to withstand them but Haiti could not.

These factors all link together but the fundamental factor that caused all the above factors was the political troubles that Haiti was facing and still is facing. The government is now officially the most corrupt on earth. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown during rioting in 2004, and now the country has a new president René Préval but the government is very unstable. UN Troops patrol the streets to keep the streets safe. People in Haiti blame the government for riots caused by the price of rice, beans and fruit rising by 50% from 2007-2008.

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The government had no money to help recover the loss after Haiti and probably did not really try to help. Geologists like Prof. Paul Mann and Dr Carol Prentice actually predicted this earthquake but the government totally ignored these warnings. This is very sad because Geologists are predicting an earthquake in Haiti again and the government are not preparing or causing any kind of awareness by building buildings with reinforced joints and stronger pillars, which is something very straightforward and can save thousands of lives.

All of the above factors have caused a huge number of life losses in Haiti but the root of the cause is the corruption of the government. The reason why there were so many deaths was the fact that Haiti was not prepared, unlike the U.S.A. and other MEDC’s like Japan, which both suffer frequently from earthquakes. If the government were not corrupt and could rise up and resolve the financial problems in Haiti, there would have been many fewer casualties as they would have the money to help prepare for an earthquake. All countries who suffer from earthquakes should see Haiti as a lesson to learn from to prevent something like this to happen again.

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Why did so many people die in the 2010 Haiti earthquake?. (2021, May 12). Retrieved August 14, 2022, from