Chile vs. Haiti: Political Economy and Earthquake Preparedness

earthquake rubbleIn the first two months of this year the world experienced two devastating earthquakes: one in Haiti and one in Chile, begging a comparison between the two incidents.  Haiti, of course, was a worldwide sensation. In the month or two following the earthquake nearly every fundraiser and charity seemed to be providing relief to Haiti and its people. The magnitude 7.0 quake centered right near the Haitian capital swept through several urban areas leveling nearly everything.  Communications were completely knocked out. Even the National Palace was destroyed, leaving the prime minister in the same dire straits as other citizens.[i] In contrast, the magnitude 8.8 quake in Chile a month later caused considerably less damage and loss of life, with death tolls under a thousand rather than over 200,000 as in Haiti.[ii] What allowed Chile to be so prepared when Haiti was clearly not?

One reason Chile was less damaged, which had less to do with preparedness than pure chance, was the location of the actual quake.  The Chilean earthquake, while over 500 times stronger than the one in Haiti, was about twice as deep and four miles offshore rather than onshore [iii] It was even further from the nearest urban area, Concepción, about 70 miles from the epicenter, while Port-Au-Prince bore the brunt of the shaking in Haiti.

Beyond the actual shaking caused by the quakes, however, Chile was better prepared overall to endure high magnitude seismic activity.  This is due to an organized government, money and building regulations, all of which Haiti has historically lacked.  About 80% of Haitian citizens live below the poverty line as opposed to 20% of Chileans, who were the hardest hit by the disaster.[iv] Apart from this, the Chilean government has had a strict Seismic Code since 1972, so that all high-risk buildings are made from seismically sound materials such as concrete, steel and reinforced concrete.[v] They are made to move with the earthquakes rather than against them.  Even low-income housing complexes in Chile are subject to strict government codes to the point where the builders of one such complex are being sued for earthquake damage.[vi] Haiti has no such codes or infrastructure.  Thus, while most of the damage to buildings in Chile was limited to historic centers, colonial architecture and churches, damage in Haiti was much more widespread.

Finally, Chile was much better prepared by experience. Chile has a lot of seismic activity, as does the entire Andean region.  It was home to the strongest earthquake ever recorded—a 9.5 magnitude quake that hit Valdivia in 1960—and this is its third recorded quake over 8.7.  They even have a local drink called the terremoto, the Spanish word for earthquake. Most of the population has experienced a major earthquake in their lifetime,  in contrast to Haiti, which hasn’t had a major quake in about 250 years. [vii] The children in Chile have earthquake training in schools, and that training allowed many people to escape to the hills and avoid the tsunamis that followed, but Haiti had no such luck.[viii]

In the end, however, both earthquakes were devastating to the areas hardest hit.

Although the Chilean government’s response was quick and well-organized, it was insufficient to help all of the displaced.  Chile had even sent some of its relief supplies to Haiti, so it was even more unprepared to deal with the aftermath. As one Chilean student said of the aftermath, “How does it occur to someone to burn supermarkets when there isn’t even enough water for the houses?” In the wake of any disaster, there is a period of disorder, no matter how well-prepared you are, but that period has been much shorter in Chile than in Haiti.  Hardly anyone was incredulous of looting in Haiti, while Chileans were horrified. In Haiti, a local man was quoted as saying, “‘Chile has a responsible government,’ he said, waving his hand in disgust. ‘Our government is incompetent.’” [ix] These incidents highlight the importance of government response and strict building codes in seismically active areas, as well as how wealth disparity affects disaster relief and damage.


[i] Frank Bajak, «Chile-Haiti Earthquake Comparison: Chile Was More Prepared,» The Huffington Post, February 27, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/27/chile-haiti-earthquake-co_n_479705.html(accessed April 1, 2010)

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] John Feffer, «Haiti vs Chile: The Earthquake Olympics,» The Huffington Post , March 30, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-feffer/haiti-vs-chile-the-earthq_b_518639.html(accessed April 1, 2010)

[v] «Strict Building Code May Explain Lower Chile Toll,» NPR, March 1, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124210386 (accessed April 1, 2010)

[vi] Frank Bajak, «Chile-Haiti Earthquake Comparison: Chile Was More Prepared,» The Huffington Post, February 27, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/27/chile-haiti-earthquake-co_n_479705.html (accessed April 1, 2010)

[vii]Ibid

[viii] Alexei Barrionuevo and Marc Lacey, «Chile Officials Call for Aid As Devestation Sinks In,» The New York Times, March 1, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/02/world/americas/02chile.html (accessed April 1, 2010)

[ix] Frank Bajak, «Chile-Haiti Earthquake Comparison: Chile Was More Prepared,» The Huffington Post, February 27, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/27/chile-haiti-earthquake-co_n_479705.html (accessed April 1, 2010)