Chile vs. Haiti Earthquake Survival

chile-earthquakeHaiti suffered much more devastation from its recent earthquake than Chile did over the weekend from a far more powerful earthquake. Jonathan Franklin and Jeffrey Smith report for WaPo:

While the death toll rose steadily to more than 700, according to a midday estimate, it remained a small fraction of the tally from a far less powerful earthquake last month in Haiti that claimed at least 220,000 lives. That temblor was more shallow and much closer to a large population center, the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. But the deaths there were mostly because of widespread building collapses, which Chilean cities did not experience.

Earthquake scientists, building engineers and political scientists in Chile and the United States agreed that even though half a million homes were heavily damaged during more than 120 seconds of shaking, the fact that so many Chileans survived was a testament to the nation’s enactment and enforcement of stringent building codes.

Matt Yglesias says this just goes to show that effective government matters.  He concludes that, contrary to the views of strawmen on the right,  “Effective and well-enforced building codes in an earthquake zone can save many lives, and the same is true across an extremely wide swathe of public activities.”

First off, not many of us doubt this.  The quibbling about more regulations is on 1) whether they’re worth the tradeoffs in liberty, economic productivity, or whathaveyou and 2) whether they should be done at the federal or the local level.   But only extremists think caveat emptor should rule the day on construction of houses and skyscrapers.

Second, as noted in the piece –and quoted by Matt — the Haiti quake “was more shallow and much closer to a large population center.”

Third, as we see from the very next paragraph of the WaPo report, there’s a reason that Haiti and Chile have different building codes.

“Unlike in Haiti, people think about earthquakes all the time in Chile. It’s in their mind,” said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “This is a country that can mobilize resources and meet these national challenges.”

Chile has relatively low levels of corruption, making enforcement of building codes more credible than in other Latin American countries; its rank on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index is 25, just six spots below the United States, while Haiti’s is 168.

So, Chile is better equipped to handle earthquakes than Haiti for the same reason that Boston is more prepared for heavy snowfall than Washington, DC.

Oh, and there’s another factor in the relative construction quality of the two countries:  Chile is a relatively wealthy society while Haiti is among the world’s poorest.  Haiti’s per capita GDP is something like $772 a year while Chile’s is $8853, according to 2009 figures from the IMF.   It’s hardly a shocker that the latter would have safer buildings.

To be sure, increased regulation is part and parcel of modernity and progress.   While overregulation can stifle competitiveness, too little leads to distrust.  But Haiti is simply not in a position to regulate its way to safer buildings until it first achieves a radical improvement in its economic quality of life.

UPDATE: Dave Schuler makes an excellent point in the comments:

Let’s add the 2008 Chinese earthquake into the mix. It was stronger than the Haitian earthquake but nothing like as strong as the Chilean earthquake. Nearly 70,000 people died by official count (it might have been a lot more). Building codes? Check. Effective? Obviously not. But the authorities clearly thought they were.

My take would be that government that doesn’t really give a good goddam about ordinary citizens was part of the problem both in Haiti and in China.

Quite.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. tom p says:

    And I thought Haiti was cursed by a 200 year old deal with the devil.

    On the more serious side James,

    Haiti suffered much more devastation from its recent earthquake than Chile did over the weekend from a far more powerful earthquake that was closer to its population center.

    is contradicted by

    That temblor was more shallow and much closer to a large population center, the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.

    not to nit pick, but a little confusing.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Tom,

    Right you are! I misread the quote the first time, reading it as additional evidence for the point rather than a rather strong qualifier. I’ve amended the post to make it clear now.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Matt Yglesias says this just goes to show that effective government matters. He concludes that, contrary to the views of strawmen on the right, “Effective and well-enforced building codes in an earthquake zone can save many lives, and the same is true across an extremely wide swathe of public activities.”

    ?

    Sounds like begging the question to me. Let’s add the 2008 Chinese earthquake into the mix. It was stronger than the Haitian earthquake but nothing like as strong as the Chilean earthquake. Nearly 70,000 people died by official count (it might have been a lot more). Building codes? Check. Effective? Obviously not. But the authorities clearly thought they were.

    My take would be that government that doesn’t really give a good goddam about ordinary citizens was part of the problem both in Haiti and in China.

  4. Franklin says:

    Are you sure China has building codes? From what I know of the place, it’s pretty Wild West. At the very least, if there ARE building codes, then it’s easy enough to bribe someone to ignore violations.

  5. The simple answer is Chile is richer than Haiti. They can afford more regulations.

    Yglesias, if he’d read less Rawls and more Adam Smith, would appreciate that.

  6. tom p says:

    My take would be that government that doesn’t really give a good goddam about ordinary citizens was part of the problem both in Haiti and in China.

    and

    Are you sure China has building codes? From what I know of the place, it’s pretty Wild West. At the very least, if there ARE building codes, then it’s easy enough to bribe someone to ignore violations.

    As a union carpenter, I have to say, even here in the US, there are places that have no (read, “zero”)building codes. One can build whatever one wants in some places (and believe me, I mean whatever…) and one has to keep in mind that not all codes are created equal, and in those places with good building codes, there are ways to hide stuff and other ways to get stuff by the inspectors… And I am not even talking about bribes (which do happen from time to time).

    This is the USofA.

    Now, think about China… Dave, do you really think they enforce their codes as stringently as we do? Hell, do you think they think they do?

    Not a chance. That is why the Chinese Gov’t quashes every lawsuit against the contractors who built the schools so many children died in.

    The simple answer is Chile is richer than Haiti. They can afford more regulations.

    Occam’s Razor guys, Occams Razor.

    ps: my wife just said, “You can’t get around these building codes legally.”

    I said, “What’s legal got to do with it?”

  7. tom p says:

    My take would be that government that doesn’t really give a good goddam about ordinary citizens was part of the problem both in Haiti and in China.

    And Dave, there is a difference between gov’t which acts with indifference (as happens all too often here in the US) and gov’t that acts with “What is in it for me?” (pure corruption) which I suspect happens all too often in Haiti and China.

  8. anjin-san says:

    But only extremists think caveat emptor should rule the day on construction of houses and skyscrapers.

    Extremists. Well, you have serious players in the GOP talking about succession, for God’s sake, so I am wondering exactly how a Republican defines “extremists” these days.

  9. Pat_W says:

    In comparing the relative impacts of the two quakes, it is easy to get sidetracked and to use the intensity at the 2 epicenters as a proxy for gauging the intensity at the affected metro centers. NGS data, on the other hand, suggests that the level of shaking at Port au Prince was “extreme,” their highest category, or ~ twice that at either Santiago or Concepcion. Obviously, the wealth of the country, the adoption of resistant construction, etc., are all important for saving lives. But, the point remains that Haitians were subjected to significantly more severe destructive forces.

  10. spencer says:

    You said not many of us believe that building code do not make any difference.

    Obvious you do not read the George mason libertarian blogs.

  11. Krack Jobo says:

    How does building codes have nothing to do with it? Since Chile had stricter regulations their buildings were better enforced and lee likely to fall//collapse.