When Chile climbed back to its feet after getting blindsided by a violent 8.8-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 27, 2010, it was ready for the next assault. That came last week, when the South American country was rocked again by an 8.3-magnitude quake and a subsequent tsunami that sloshed parts of the northern coast, turning it into a boat graveyard.
But this time Chile knew how to take a punch. Whereas the 2010 quake claimed some 500 victims, last week’s shakeup killed only 12. Granted no two earthquakes are really comparable, but Chile’s resilience this time around was due— in good part— to efforts to reduce disaster risk, according to Margareta Wahlström, head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).
“Chile’s investment in resilient infrastructure, early warning systems and urban planning have ensured that casualties have been low on this occasion despite the intensity of the earthquake,” Wahlström said in a statement. “Early warnings have been very effective in saving lives and the country’s mechanism for ensuring compliance with building codes has also paid dividends. The evacuation of one million people ensured that there was no repetition of the loss of life which happened five years ago when 523 people died.”
Chile’s shaky history includes some of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded, including a monstrous 9.5-magnitude quake in 1960. But Chile isn’t the only country in Latin America with a history of getting slapped around by Mother Nature. A good chunk of Central and South America sit on active and ill-tempered fault lines. Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Haiti have all had massive earthquakes in the past 45 years, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives throughout the hemisphere.
But have other countries learned to mitigate against earthquake risk as well as Chile? We looked at three other countries whose recent histories have been defined by devastating earthquakes, and asked: is you is or is you ain't ready for the next Big One?
Mexico City (last big quake: Sept. 19-20, 1985)
Thirty years ago last weekend Mexico City was hit by an 8.1-magnitude earthquake that caused thousands of deaths — so many that a local baseball stadium was repurposed as a morgue. Economic losses were in the millions. After the quake struck, small and agile rescue workers crawled inside the ruins of crumbled buildings to rescue trapped victims, earning international fame as the topos, or mole people. Babies pulled from shambled hospitals were dubbed “the miracle children.”
But the main takeaway from that event was that the Mexico wasn’t prepared for a disaster of such magnitude. The country is now trying to change that. Last weekend, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the quake, residents of Mexico City conducted a massive earthquake evacuation drill in prep for the next Big One, which could very well hit in the same area as the '85 quake, according to Xyoli Pérez Campos, director of the national seismology service (SSM).
Some experts think Mexico is better prepared now than it was in the 80s, but many suggested precautions were never implemented. The structures of many older buildings were never reinforced or properly maintained, and poor urban planning has exposed many Mexican cities to a variety of other natural disasters.
“The rapid and continuous urbanization of metropolitan areas have increased informal settlement in areas that are prone to risks, states a 2013 OECD study.
But all is not lost. The same study recognizes that city authorities have implemented some stricter building codes and new systems of alert. The fear of a future earthquake has also led to innovation, including a recent crowdfunded project to create an inexpensive earthquake-alert device known as a Grillo, or Cricket.
One of the most daunting tasks ahead will be generating a culture of prevention. “In Mexico it's estimated that only 5 percent of households have damage insurance, and 35 percent of companies employ this type of protection,” according to a report by Mexican daily El Financiero.
Mexico better hope it's ready. With a population now topping 20 million, the capital could be facing a catastrophe of unprecedented human and economic proportions when the next big quake hits. Mejor prevenir que lamentar, as they say.
Managua, Nicaragua (last big quake: Dec. 23, 1972)
The 1972 earthquake that leveled Nicaragua’s capital, killing 10,000 people and turning 50,000 buildings into rubble, was the third such quake to destroy Managua in less than 90 years. The city was previously leveled by massive earthquakes in 1885 and 1931. And if history is any predictor of future events, Managua gets hit by a monstrous earthquake every 40 to 45 years or so. And— unfortunately for Managuas —1972 + 45 years = 2017, which is too scary to think about sober.
The next Big One in Nicaragua is not a question of if, but when. Managua, it was discovered after the ’72 quake, was built on the intersection of five angry fault lines. The city’s founding fathers would have been hard pressed to build in a worse place. There was even some talk in the early 1970s of moving Nicaragua’s capital to sturdier ground in neighboring Masaya or Carazo — a decision that more than 250,000 people decided to do on their own by relocating their families to other parts of the country. But when it comes to city planning, myopia is a strong force to reckon with, and ultimately Managua was rebuilt where thrice it had been felled.
Still, the next big quake is less likely to be as deadly as its predecessors, even though Managua’s population has ballooned to over 2 million since the last time it the city crumbled. Better construction codes, sturdier building supplies, and government evacuation routes and emergency procedures have helped prepare Managua to mitigate against future disaster, says Nicaraguan historian Roberto Sanchez.
Managua’s population is also less concentrated along the fault lines that crisscross the historic downtown “death zone” next to Lake Managua. New construction and residential areas have moved off the shakiest ground and grown in southeastern manner away from the old center.
“Managua’s population is so disperse now that if you look at the city from a high building it looks like a forest,” Sanchez says.
But finding a high building from which to gaze upon the city is a challenge. The tallest building in Managua isn’t much taller than dozen floors, and most construction doesn’t clear the treetops, giving the city a strange, overgrown feel.
While Managua is arguably better prepared for a big quake than it ever has been in its past, a strong shakeup could still claim a large number of victims due to the countless number of makeshift additions that poorer families have built on their homes in the city center over the years.
“As families grow, many people build their own additions in their back patios, and there’s very little control on those constructions,” Sanchez said, noting that a recent tremor in Managua caused a few poorly built walls to fall on unsuspecting people sleeping in their beds.
The Sandinista government is aware of the math and conducts regular trainings and earthquake evacuations in preparation for that day that no one is looking forward to. Managuas are always ready too — it’s a city where very few people sleep naked, because no one knows when they’ll end up in the street at 3 a.m.
Port-au-Prince, Haiti (last big quake: Jan. 12, 2010)
Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake five years ago has been described — by some measures — as the single most destructive natural disaster to ever hit any country anywhere.
The quake unleashed widespread death and destruction, killing between 200,000 - 250,000 people and flattening large parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince. The quake was actually far weaker than a 2010 earthquake that struck Chile several weeks earlier. But it laid bare the harsh reality in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Following the quake, more than $13 billion in foreign aid was pledged by foreign donors to help Haiti recover, but there are few signs the country is prepared to withstand the next big quake.
“Haiti was totally unprepared then, and I’m afraid that’s still the case,” said Brian Concannon, the executive director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
It wasn’t long ago that rubble from the 2010 quake could be still be found on Port-au-Prince’s streets. Haiti is still trying to return to some semblance of normalcy, at least by Haitian standards. But it's still grappling with deeply entrenched problems that indirectly contributed to the destruction in 2010, such as poor building codes and land tenure issues.
“This was not an earthquake that wiped out everything in its path,” said Concannon. “It was one one that wiped out very poorly constructed homes.”
Unlike in Chile, there are few earthquake-resistant buildings in Haiti. And a series of disasters in recent years— a cholera epidemic followed by several devastating tropical storms—has strained the Haitian government’s budget and distracted its focus.
Many of the new post-quake homes in Haiti are still not up to seismological standards, Concannon said. “We’ve already seen one catastrophic quake in Haiti, another one could be catastrophic on another level.”
Rafa Fernandez De Castro is a Fusion consultant for Mexico and Latin America. He covers Mexican youth, politics, culture, narcos and funny stuff once in a while.
Tim Rogers, Fusion's senior editor for Latin America, was born a gringo to well-meaning parents, but would rather have been Nicaraguan. Also, he's the second hit on Google when you search for "Guatemalan superhero." Tim was a Nieman Fellow in 2014.