Friday, March 12, 2010

About Earthquakes

Source: "Natural Disasters, National Diligence: The Chilean Earthquake in Perspective," Daniel Kaufmann and José Tessada.

The earthquake and tsunami in Chile was terrible, and it will put the nation back years in its development. Chileans are understandably complaining that they wish more had been done in terms of warnings and post disaster relief. Yet the death and injury toll could have been much worse. The epicenter of the quake was deep underground, and that apparently helped. It was in a less populated area than that in Haiti.

One thing that has not been mentioned is that Chileans know about earthquakes and tsunamis. When they felt the quake they took action to get out of the way of falling objects and stayed out of doors during the long chain of aftershocks that is still happening. Coastal villagers when they felt the shocks literally ran for the hills, not waiting for the tsunami warning (which never came).

Some of the amelioration of the quake damages should be attributed to good governance. There are building regulations in Chile and the level of government and industrial corruption is sufficiently low that they are widely enforced, leading to buildings that resist earthquakes. The military could reach the affected cities relatively soon to impose order and the government had emergency stores that it could mobilize quickly and ship to the affected population. I suspect that utilities were also more rapidly restored than would have been the case in Chile decades ago (when I lived there), or than would be the case in many other countries.

The table above shows how frequent are major earthquakes and how many people they kill. It does not show how many more people are seriously injured nor how many suffer serious inconvenience in the aftermath of quakes, nor how much property damage the quakes do and how hard it is to recover economically from them. Good governance counts!

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