How quake warnings became reality
Signs were apparent, but little was done
For 30 years, Florentin Maurrasse, a geology professor at Florida International University, had been telling the Haitian nation the fault was going to move.
Even though Maurrasse’s warnings went without heed among the population, he was at relative comfort about his many family members living in Port-au-Prince during the Jan. 12 earthquake.
“I was in Mexico watching what was happening on TV,” Maurrasse said. “I knew that my family members’ and friends’ houses were built well and I was at ease — I knew none of their houses was going to collapse.”
The Haitian earthquake did not shock the professors within the scientific community at Florida International University and the University of Miami, both of which have a focus on geologic and tectonic research.
Like Maurrassee, many researchers were well aware of the strain on the Caribbean plate from their research, publications and conferences. A few even had published scholarly journal articles on the subject.
“It wasn’t a surprise for me,” Maurrasse said, “but it was a surprise for these [Haitian] people.”
Shimon Wdowinski, a professor at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, also was familiar with the scientific studies that warned about an earthquake. He was in Israel on Jan. 12 and had received an email about the earthquake 20 minutes after it had happened.
“It was obvious it was going to be a big disaster and that’s what happened, unfortunately,” Wdowinski said.
The magnitude of the earthquake was 7.0; it killed nearly 300,000 and left 1.2 million people homeless. According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster in Brussels, the quake was the second deadliest natural disaster since 1970. The earthquake’s main shock occurred about 15 miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince and was located on the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system.
Timothy Dixon, also a professor at UM’s Rosenstiel School, had been reading warning reports about Haiti since the 1970s and was expecting an earthquake in the region.
In March, Dixon attended a meeting in Miami where, for the first time, scientists, engineers and government officials discussed the importance of working together to plan preventative and emergency measures.
That meeting was significant, Dixon said, because prior to the January quake, such cooperation never existed and warnings “never made it to people who have a say about how and where things get built.”
Grenville Draper, an earth science professor at FIU, heard about the earthquake predictions and previously studied the same fault system in the Dominican Republic and in Jamaica.
Two years prior to the earthquake, Draper became aware of the potential earthquake at the 18th Caribbean Geological Conference in Santo Domingo. The conference specifically discussed the possible destruction of the capital of Port-au-Prince.
“This would be an event of catastrophic proportions in a city with loose building codes, and an abundance of shantytowns built in ravines and other undesirable locations,” the conference report said.
The conference report was based on research by many academics, including Eric Calais, a professor of geophysics at Purdue University and Paul Mann, a senior research scientist for the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics.
In their research, Calais and Mann said that if an earthquake occurred, the magnitude would be 7.2. Although it is impossible to predict when and where an earthquake will occur, Mann explains how he got the magnitude estimate so close.
“By taking the rates that the fault moved and the amount of time that has passed, we can figure out the strain across the fault, which was around 7.0,” Mann said.
In 2008, Calais took his research and went to the government of Haiti with warnings of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake.
“I gave them [the Haitian government] the numbers that scientists are able to provide,” Calais said. “They were concerned and listened carefully. They started implementing responses for an earthquake. “
Calais said the Haitian government was willing to take action when he presented his case, but they were too preoccupied with two hurricanes and two tropical storms coming their way. He said earthquake prevention just never made it to the top of Haiti’s priority list.
But when Calais went to talk to the disaster prevention corporations and the U.S. Embassy, which had the resources to help, there was surprisingly no follow-up.
Estelle Chaussard, a student at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at UM, went to Haiti with Calais two weeks after the earthquake. She believes that the government didn’t want to panic the people in case the scientists’ warnings constituted a false alarm.
“I think it would’ve been really scary for the people to know that you have a risk and especially since you can’t say the date, it’s even scarier for people there,” Chaussard said.
Chaussard worked in Haiti to help find exactly which part of the fault ruptured and to find ways to plan and rebuild in a better way. This was her first time in a situation so tragic, and while working, she found it overwhelming to see bodies trapped under rubble and to smell the rot of casualties.
“Working in Haiti was stressful because of the destruction and the misery,” Chaussard said. “But it was also a great experience because each one of these people are really strong and want to overcome the situation.”
After the earthquake, the same organizations Calais had previously warned began expediting outreach and education programs. The six-month follow up on the Haitian earthquake also included a workshop, The 2010 Haiti Earthquake: An Alert for Hispaniola, which was held July 12-15 in the Dominican Republic.
Mann and Calais participated as speakers and discussed ideas about how to take the geological research and use it to educate Haiti. It’s difficult for scientists to teach people who have little education, but they’re in the process of organizing a method to inform people about faults.
“We’re trying to show people geology and the basic knowledge about earthquakes and teach them all of this in a way that they can understand,” Mann said. “If you’re totally clueless about faults, you don’t know what the risks are.”
Calais and Chaussard met with Haitian teachers who wanted to rebuild the schools and teach their classes about earthquakes. The teachers believe spreading information through the children will pass down into their families and eventually into the community.
Chaussard said such a mission is critical because of how uninformed Haitians are about earthquakes.
“People were running into houses when the earthquake hit,” Chaussard said.
Although Calais, Chaussard and others are facing the challenge of educating people in Haiti, they also are dedicated to producing future scholars who can focus long-term on earthquake prediction and prevention in Haiti.