Not Everyone Surprised by Haiti Earthquake;
Geologists Sounded Alarm for Years


By Jane Musgrave

January 15, 2010 "
Palm Beach Post" -- WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — For years, scientists have warned that it was only a matter of time before another major earthquake hit Haiti or the Dominican Republic.

In 2006, a group of scientists, even predicted it's strength: magnitude 7.2.

So, when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti earlier this week, geologists weren't surprised. Neither did they say, "I told you so."

"This is not good. This is very bad," said Jian Lin, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who five years ago sounded an alarm that was ignored.

He, fellow USGS geologist Uri ten Brink and others pushed for more research in the area that is described as one of the most complex, understudied and potentially volatile seismic areas in the world. More study would have unlocked mysteries that lurk beneath the heavily populated islands that share precarious space with two tectonic plates, a series of faults and volcanoes.

But, ten Brink said the main goal was much simpler: "We were actually trying to say, 'Look. You have to watch out.' "

They were hoping to spur action. Beefed up building codes, early warning systems for tsunamis, public education and disaster planning, such as exist in California, were among their goals.

But between poverty and government corruption, nothing happened.

"I don't think anyone cares anything about an earthquake in Haiti because they have too many other things to worry about," said Roger Bilham, professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado. "(The people) don't worry about earthquakes, but the government should care."

The frustrated geologists point to the difference building codes and emergency preparedness measures can make.

The magnitude 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake in California, known as the 1989 World Series earthquake, killed 63 people. The magnitude 6.9 Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1995 claimed 5,000 lives.

That death toll is expected to pale in comparison as bodies pile up in Haiti. Already the casualty estimates from disaster experts reach up 500,000. Many, Bilham said, will die from kidney failure due to lack of water while waiting for rescuers to arrive.

While Haiti is still being shaken by aftershocks, scientists said they don't know whether this week's earthquake will trigger more. Scientists know much about earthquakes, but "can't tell you when," Lin said.

He offered this sobering thought about Tuesday's earthquake along the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault: "It only ruptured along very small portion," he said of the roughly 375 mile-long fissure. "Ninety percent of the fault will continue to be able to pop."

Further, he said, it's only one of two major faults, not to mention the shifting tectonic plates, a trench that is the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean and other geological features that make the area so potentially explosive.

The last major earthquake was in 1946 along the Septentrional fault which cuts through the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. That earthquake, a magnitude 8.1, produced a tsunami that killed between 1,600 and 1,800 people.

A repeat of that massive earthquake could produce a tsunami that would reach Florida, ten Brink said. South Florida is protected by the Bahama platform. The rest of the state, however, isn't as lucky, he said.

While more study in the Caribbean is needed, geologist said a wealth of information is available.

"We know many of these faults are dangerous. I don't know when the public will get it," Lin said.

Others hope Haiti uses foreign aid wisely.

"Now is the time for Haiti to get its act together. This is the time to invest in a future," Bilham said.

Jane Musgrave writes for The Palm Beach Post. E-mail: jane(underscore)musgrave@pbpost.com.
 

 

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