January 25, 2010

Profs: Infrastructure Problems Exacerbated Haiti Quake Disaster

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In response to campus-wide interest in the Haiti earthquake, four Cornell professors took part in a panel offering a multidisciplinary approach to the implications of the disaster, with each speaker addressing an individual topic. The panel — entitled “The Science, Engineering, and Social Implications of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake” — was sponsored by the departments of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Natural Resources and Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Prof. Rick Allmendinger, earth and atmospheric sciences, began with a discussion of plate tectonics and explained how earthquakes form when plates grind together in a “shearing motion.” Although scientists understand how earthquakes occur, they cannot predict precisely when they will occur. According to Allmendinger, the Haiti earthquake was not unprecedented: earthquakes have historically plagued the region, generally occurring in clusters.

“Because humans have a short frame of reference in terms of time, we tend to think that there won’t be any [earthquake] activity in the future. That’s just inaccurate … [The Haiti earthquake] is simply the latest in a long string of earthquakes that have affected [the Caribbean] region,” Allmendinger said.

Allmendinger stressed that the Haiti earthquake was not unusually large for the region, which has experienced other earthquakes of similar magnitudes. The 2005 Sumatra earthquake, for example, was two orders of magnitude larger than the one in Haiti. The Haiti earthquake was devastating earthquake was devastating because of the earthquake’s shallow depth and the inadequate construction in populated areas, not because of its size, said Allmendinger.

Prof. Rowena Lohman, earth and atmospheric sciences, followed Allmendinger with an overview of the geophysics of earthquakes. According to Lohman, the ultimate goal of earthquake geophysics is to predict and forecast when an earthquake will occur.

“In order to make these sorts of advances…we need to have a very good understanding of the history of the region,” Lohman said.

This history includes measurements of the size, frequency, and damage of past earthquakes. The earthquake’s depth and location, which can affect the earthquake’s intensity, are also taken into account. Such measurements allow scientists to accurately predict the magnitude of future earthquakes, said Allmendinger.

However, Prof.Thomas O’Rourke, civil and environmental engineering, emphasized that predictions are not the only means of preventing devastating. According to O’Rourke, much of the earthquake’s devastation could have been prevented with better infrastructure.

“Port-au-Prince has extremely vulnerable buildings,” O’Rourke said. “We lack a universal design code…and more importantly, we have lack of building code enforcement and inspection [in Port-au-Prince].”

As O’Rourke explained, this resulted in widespread nonducticle concrete failure and shear failure. The damage done to the Notre Dame Cathedral, built with unreinforced masonry, exemplifies such failures, according to O’Rourke. In contrast, confined masonry residences experienced little or no damage.

Architecture, however, was not the only factor explaining the devastation in Haiti, according to O’Rourke. The crowded urban environment, limited police force and emergency personnel and failure of “lifeline systems”— such as water supplies, electric power, waste disposal, transportation and telecommunications — also contributed to the disaster.

Often, a country’s economic status correlates with the damage it suffers from earthquakes, according to O’Rourke. While wealthier nations experience fewer fatalities, they suffer costlier infrastructural damage than do poorer nations, mostly because their infrastructures are more costly to begin with. In contrast, poorer nations experience many more fatalities. O’Rourke contrasted the 1994 Northridge and 1995 Kobe earthquakes — which resulted in much infrastructural damage but comparatively few fatalities — with the high death tolls of the 2004 Sumatra and 2010 Haiti earthquakes.

Prof. Chris Andronocos , earth and atmospheric sciences, further expanded on the relationship between poverty and earthquake devastation.

“We are inescapably drawn to the conclusion that poverty … is not addressed in disaster mitigation …,” Andonocos said. “We often portray disasters as being acts of nature, acts of god … but the major factors … really are human in character.”

Using a graph of per capita GDP and fatalities in major earthquakes since 1990, Andronocos highlighted the huge spike in fatalities in countries with lower GDPs, which often lack the resources to build structures that can withstand earthquakes. Additionally, he cited some chilling statistics: 94 percent of people killed by disasters have low or lower-middle incomes, and the poorest people constitute 68 percent of all deaths from disasters

“[These statistics are] very illustrative of how poverty really magnifies the propensity for disasters,” Andronocos said. “Disaster really does impact the poor much more so than it does wealthier communities, and this is in many ways not a huge surprise.”

Andronocos ended with a discussion of Haiti’s history, including the interventionist role frequently played by the United States, and emphasized how current relief efforts are “an opportunity for change.”

“Immediate relief efforts are absolutely critical …We have to keep doing what we’re doing in terms of trying to save people,” Andonocos added.

The audience agreed. Over 60 people attended, and many actively participated by asking questions and expressing interest in relief efforts. Prof. Alice Pell, vice provost of international relations, emphasized the active role Cornell has taken in these efforts. Pell cited Cornell’s ties to the Group for the Study of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections (GHESKIO), a health clinic in Port-au-Prince which has worked with Cornell’s Weill Medical College since 1980.

“One of the things that we will be doing is to support GHESKIO,” Pell said. “We are very proud to have a long term relationship with GHESKIO.”

Pell also emphasized that numerous NGOs deserved Cornell’s support and encouraged audience members to donate blood to the relief efforts and publicized an open discussion featuring a public panel that will be held today at 4:30 P.M. in the Multipurpose Room of the Africana Studies and Research Center.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg