"(Feb. 27) -- Though an 8.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked Chile early Saturday was one of the strongest on record, the structural devastation and human toll is expected to be far smaller than the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti in January.
To project the scope of destruction and loss of human life, the quality of buildings and the poverty level are far more telling than the magnitude on the Richter scale, scientists and aid workers say.
"It's not as much the earthquake that kills, it's the poverty that kills," said Colin Stark, a geomorphologist and researcher at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who is studying the aftermath of a 1999 earthquake in Taiwan to predict the probability of landslides in Haiti.
In 1999, earthquakes of similar magnitudes struck Taiwan and Turkey, but Turkey, which has a higher poverty level, experienced five times as much damage, according to Stark. "The thing ultimately that decides how much damage there will be and how many people die is the quality of the buildings," he said.
Mexico City, built on a lakebed, proved particularly vulnerable in 1985 when a 8.1-magnitude earthquake killed about 10,000 people and toppled more than 400 buildings.
The depth and proximity of the earthquake's epicenter to cities also determine the level of damage, said Robert Williams, a geophysicist for the United States Geological Survey in Golden, Colo. "The Haiti quake occurred very close to some densely populated areas. In Chile, by the time the energy reached the capital, it had dissipated a little bit. Also the Chile quake was deeper, so the energy was attenuated as it rose to the surface," said Williams.
The epicenter of Saturday's earthquake was 385 miles southwest of Santiago, but the tremor toppled historic buildings in the capital and resulted in the death of hundreds of people.
By comparison, the death toll from Haiti's 7.0-magnitude earthquake Jan. 12, whose epicenter was only 15 miles from the capital Port-au-Prince, has exceeded 230,000 and could reach 300,000, Haitian President Rene Preval told a meeting
of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Mexico last week.
Aid workers from Seattle-based World Vision were dispatched Saturday afternoon on the first relief flight to Chile, though the damage was not expected to rival the destruction in Haiti. "World Vision is concerned about those living near the epicenter who are poorer and more marginalized in Chilean society, and of course children. But it would be difficult to imagine us seeing anywhere near the death toll or damage that we've seen in Haiti," spokesperson Rachel Wolff said.
A country's experience and preparedness also lower fatalities in a natural disaster, Wolff said. Chile sits in the "ring of fire" earthquake zone around the Pacific Rim, and it has a long history of earthquakes, including the strongest on record which struck in 1960, a 9.5-magnitude quake that struck near Validvia and left 1,655 dead.
In Haiti, the severity of destruction and the high number of deaths were a function of the nation's extreme poverty, lack of building codes and inexperience with earthquakes, Wolff said. Chile, by comparison, has strong building codes based on experience with large and fairly regular earthquakes. The nation's average annual income is $11,000, compared to $1,900 in Haiti.
Wealthier earthquake-prone areas like San Francisco invest in buildings that will withstand disaster, Stark said. Poor nations have little hope of constructing homes and office buildings that meet such high standards, he said.
"For many of the poor inhabitants, indeed, they will never be able to afford to construct buildings as they do in San Francisco, but that shouldn't be the goal," said Marc Eberhard, a University of Washington civil and environmental engineering professor who led a five-person team that provided engineering support to the United States Southern Command in Haiti.
Eberhard said that many of the earthquake's fatalities could have been prevented by using earthquake-resistant designs and construction, as well as improved quality control in concrete and masonry work. "One could have improved the building stock tremendously without spending a lot of money.""
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