Chile vs. Haiti Earthquake Survival
Haiti 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.