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Rich Country, Poor Country | Chile in Haiti’s Wake

March 2, 2010

With the onslaught of another major natural disaster so soon after Haiti yet under such different circumstances, its as if Mother Nature is blatantly reminding us who is really causing the damage. Over the last few days, we’ve seen one report after another comparing the 8.8 quake that hit Chile February 27 with far less casualties to the 7.0 quake that absolutely devastated Haiti on January 12. Although partly luck played a part in this–the earthquake in Haiti was much closer to the earth’s surface and was very close to its urbanized capital–it was wealth, building codes and preparedness that saved thousands of lives in Chile.

Iglesia Corazón de María de Linares, foto de Daniela Gajardo

Sadly however, the first is a prerequisite for the latter. Without wealth, there are not enough resources to educate about disaster prevention or construct earthquake resistant buildings, nor the stability needed to enforce appropriate building codes (a debate on that here). There is no question that poverty was the root cause of so many deaths after the quake in the Western hemisphere’s poorest country, as we noted in an earlier post.

Graphs showing deaths, injuries and homeless
Source: BBC

Damage in Haiti. source: AFP/Getty Images via CNN

While organizations like Architecture for Humanity and many others are providing on-ground support working with local groups and architects in Haiti, Chile’s response was immediate, coordinated and almost entirely self-dependent. A Huffington Post article said that AfH had received 400 requests for help the day after the Haiti quake but that it had yet to receive a single request for help for Chile. Already, the Chilean College of Architects has set up a blog (@colegioarq on twitter) that serves as a hotline and support center to anyone needing urgent consultation from architects regarding the structural evaluation of their homes. In collaboration with the Ministry of Housing, the Institute of Construction is in the process of coordinating site visits to evaulate the state of private and public buildings.

UPDATE: Starting today AFH will be collecting funds on behalf of the Colegio de Arquitectos to support Chilean professionals endeavors after the 8.8 earthquake. Formal structural assessment training for volunteers starts in a few hours and almost 700 architects have volunteered at Platform Arquitectura plus an additional 300 directly at the Colegio.

Donate directly to the Chile Earthquake Reconstruction Fund

Talca (AP Photo/Roberto Candia)
Talca, Chile. (AP Photo/Roberto Candia)

An article in The Guardian highlighted:

“Chile is one of South America’s richest, best-organised countries. It has long experience of dealing with earthquakes. Homes and offices are built to sway with seismic waves rather than resist them.required by blueprints and building codes.”

Graphic showing strong column weak beam system
source: BBC

In an interview with Eduardo Kausel, the MIT engineering professor said:

“In Santiago, most of the damage really happened in the historical part of the city [where older buildings predated Chilean seismic codes]. On the other hand, modern construction and modern buildings behaved very well.”

When asked where the world’s most vulnerable earthquake spots were, Kausel replied:

“Well, the problem spots, for example, in Asia. I mean, you’re talking there of Pakistan, Iran, etcetera…and along the Himalayas. I mean, they do also have some seismic codes but obviously they’re difficult to enforce. These are poor countries and there’s lots of very poor construction actually.”

Edificio en Concepción, 15 pisos....  (AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

Meanwhile, in the midst of all the fray in poor countries like these struck by misfortune, dark forms of aid lurking in the cracks–such as those seeking to profit from disaster–threaten to undermine the abundance of genuine humanitarian support and what’s worse, perpetuate the poverty that made these countries vulnerable in the first place.

The advent of Chile in Haiti’s wake certainly hammers in a few valuable lessons about building for disaster, but its anyone’s guess when the world will be ready to treat the problem’s root rather than the symptoms.

For updates on the earthquake in Chile with and extensive collection of images, maps, videos and info regarding architecture and affected buildings, follow the Spanish coverage over at Plataforma Arquitectura.

photos of Chile from parq

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