Every natural disaster affects the human “footprint” on the planet differently. So it’s not exactly apples-to-apples to compare this past weekend’s Chile earthquake with the Haiti quake. The latter hit closer to a sprawling urban area, and so the death toll is naturally going to be much higher. But on the face of it, the numbers are striking: more than 200,000 Haitiians died, mostly due to collapsing buildings and infrastructure. The Chilean death toll is still below 1,000 and likely to remain much lower than Haiti’s.
Besides the relative luck of geography, there’s a manmade reason for that: Chileans realized they had built their cities on major earthquake faults and their government took steps to prepare for the worst.
Haiti’s earthquake was shallower and closer to a major city, Port-au-Prince, than was the Chilean quake, which accounted for much of the devastation in Haiti. Stricter building codes and better enforcement of them played a major role in reducing the loss of life in Chile, says Andres García, manager of AGR Analysis, a construction and building management company in Viña del Mar, Chile.
“Chile has been building according to the best standards in the world for at least 20 years,” García says. “As the technology and techniques have gotten better, the rules have gotten stricter. And that’s what has minimized the loss of life this time around.”
All this seems pretty obvious from a civics lesson standpoint. Yet if you look at the United States, we’re in considerably worse shape prepping for earthquakes and other disasters. Our infrastructure is falling apart, as the American Society of Civil Engineers has repeatedly noted, which of course means a lot of important stuff is more likely to collapse or implode in the event of disaster. The West Coast has earthquake-resistant building codes, this report from the Institute for Business and Home Safety notes, but not so the Midwest, which is overdue for a quake from the New Madrid fault.
Why such a patchwork? Because disaster planning is not a national priority. In some ways, this makes sense: the United States covers a vast and varied landscape. Conditions and risks vary widely. In Chile with earthquakes, or with the Netherlands and floods, there’s a clear top-down rationale. Not so here.
The problem is, though, that the footprint of potential natural disasters is getting larger, in the U.S. and abroad. And as that expands, so does the onus on the federal government. There’s more sprawl and development covering a wider area than before. Much of it is in disaster-prone areas, close to coastlines, fire-prone forests and fault lines. In America, people like to live close to nature, and nature isn’t shy about biting back. Around the world, the advent of the mega-city has put more people and buildings over fault lines than ever before in human history.
Add into this the potential effects of global warming on sea level, storms, and fire regimes, and the risks grow even more. That is, beyond capacity of U.S. states and localities, or developing world nations, to absorb.
In an age of austerity, a few more mega-disasters on the scale of Hurricane Katrina – which cost more than $100 billion in federal aid – will really put the hurt on the federal budget. Modest up-front improvements in building codes and other forms of “disaster mitigation” can save billions on the back-end.
But there are all kinds of obstacles. Our government and politics are famously dysfunctional, and there’s a powerful and renewed strain of sentiment that holds any government action in contempt. The Chile situation should be a reminder that governments are, occasionally, quite useful.