What Can a Poor City Really Do to Prepare for an Earthquake?

Earthquakes present a unique problem for cities with a lack of resources.


This story has been updated.

This story has been updated.

It was an early lesson in the politics of earthquake management.

Brian Tucker, a California-based seismologist, and his team at GeoHazards International, a non-profit devoted to reducing earthquake risk, were in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito in the early 1990s, working on their first project. They’d spent two years in the city coming up with detailed proposals to make the city less vulnerable to a massive earthquake. They examined Quito’s building stock, its roads and hospitals, and worked out a communications strategy. At the end of it all, they submitted a list of potential plans to the mayor, Jamil Mahuad, who scheduled a press conference for the next day where he would announce next steps in planning for the Big One.

And then, Mahuad did what so many policymakers do when faced with an expensive, intractable problem — he came up with a cosmetic solution. “He established an emergency management office,” Tucker said. The response, he said, was “feeble.”

In the wake of the quake that has killed more than 5,000 in Nepal, experts have pointed to a lack of preparation in the capital as a contributing factor to the staggering death toll, which continues to climb. And while scientists had been fully expecting a massive quake to strike the region, that did little to prepare the city for the devastation that was to come.

Indeed, Saturday’s earthquake released what Susan Hough, a seismologist with the United States Geological Survey, described as an “amount of stored tectonic energy that’s hard to get your head around.” The quake, she said, released energy several orders of magnitude greater than that released by a nuclear bomb, spread out along a 50 to 100 mile fault-line. To make matters worse, the Kathmandu Valley is akin to a seismological bathtub that amplifies the seismic waves that travel within it, Hough said. “Think about picking up the country of Nepal and shaking it back and forth and what kind of energy that requires.”

But that’s just the beginning of the story for some of the world’s most earthquake-vulnerable capitals. Cities such as Lima, Peru; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Quito, Ecuador; and Kathmandu, Nepal, suffer from poverty, an abundance of informal settlements, and frail governments. These cities are both particular susceptible to quakes and loathe to invest their highly limited resources on what seems a distant threat. The full quantity of energy released by the Nepal quake illustrates what a massive undertaking it is to protect these cities against such temblors.

Even those who buy in to the importance of earthquake preparation face tremendous obstacles, Tucker said: A hypothetical mayor of Port-au-Prince determined to make his city safe would first have to ensure the city’s building code is modern and up to date. Then, to enforce the code, the city would have to hire a team of engineers. To recruit engineers of sufficient caliber to understand and enforce such a code, the city would have to pay sufficient wages to be competitive with private sector work.

That outline begins to get at the problem of earthquake preparedness in a city where more than 200,000 died in a 2010 earthquake but barely scratches the surface of the deeper problems that has left the city so vulnerable in the first place. What, for example, should be done if a shantytown is found to violate code? Should it be razed? Where then will its residents go?

But the bigger problem may be overcoming what Tucker described in a 2011 Science article as the “the psychological remoteness of rare earthquakes.” Because disastrous earthquakes happen so rarely, it is difficult to build support for making investments today that will make earthquakes decades from now less deadly. For that reason, Tucker’s team considers educating residents and those in government a major component of their efforts to prioritize earthquake safety.

In some ways, the Quito project was a success, Tucker said. The press conference helped gain attention for the idea that Quito was a city very vulnerable to quakes and helped create political support for later earthquake mitigation efforts. And Tucker said he appreciated Mahuad’s efforts while operating within tight political constraints.

The next year, GeoHazard International came with a plan more squarely addressed at the city’s politics and its mayor. “I needed to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Tucker said. The team produced a report on about a dozen of Quito’s schools, accompanied by pictures, and plans for designs that could make them safer. “We figured it would be a politically advantageous move for him,” he said. “Much more than strengthening a road or a bridge….We had to make it really attractive to the mayor.” The schools were retrofitted the next year, Tucker said.

Other ways to create incentives to focus the minds of besieged governors and mayors on a distant threat include convincing international corporations, UN agencies, and aid groups to only purchase or rent space in buildings up to modern earthquake codes, Tucker said.

Istanbul – a city that sits just north of the North Anatolian fault – was once considered one of the world’s most earthquake-vulnerable cities. But over the past 15 years, the city has, with the help of the World Bank, undergone a massive retrofitting campaign that has included schools, hospitals, and other buildings.

But Istanbul is both a wealthier city, with a more robust government, than a Kathmandu or a Port-au-Prince, Tucker said. And even so, its ambitious mitigation efforts only came in the wake of the 1999 earthquake that killed 17,000.

“If you were the mayor of a big city, the biggest help I could give you would be to launch some kind of public campaign that would make your voters aware” that earthquakes are real, dangerous, and cost money to prepare for, he said.

Omar Havana/Getty Images

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon. Twitter: @APQW

Twitter: @EliasGroll

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