An earthquake

Unless you’ve been living with your head under a rock, you know that recently there have been two major earthquakes. On January 12, a magnitude 7 earthquake struck near the Haitian capital of Port au Prince. We will likely never have an exact casualty toll, but estimates on the number people killed range between 217,000 and 230,000. That’s about as many people as died last year in the US from pneumonia, strokes and murder — combined. (1). The toll continues to rise, as people suffer from secondary effects of the quake like malnutrition, untreated infections from injuries, poor water quality and other issues.

On February 27th, a quake measure 8.8 hit near the Chilean city of Concepcion. This was such a powerful shaking of the earth that it may have actually shortened the length of the day by 1.26 milliseconds (2). I could not find a definitive death toll, but estimates range between 300 – 800 people, although that toll may rise as the evaluation continues.

I was struck by the difference between these two quakes. The Chilean quake was 500 times more powerful than the Haitian quake. But the death toll in Haiti was more than two orders of magnitude larger than the toll in Chile? Why is that?

I’m no expert. I know there are a lot of natural factors involved, including the proximity of the epicenter to a population center, the depth of the earthquake, and population density.

But here in this natural disaster, one of the key differences between 230,000 people dead and 700 people dead was not nature at all, but human preparation and planning. I’m here to tell you that architects save lives. Simply put, Chile has strong government enforcement of building codes designed to help buildings and their inhabitants withstand serious earthquakes. Haiti, a poverty-stricken country, did not have the rigorous building codes, nor did it have the laws and enforcement to back up the codes it did have. While the difference in building codes doesn’t account for all the difference in the loss of life that followed the quakes, it played an important role.

This is not to blame Haiti or Haitians for their own disaster. The poverty that underlies the lower construction quality has complicated roots reaching back centuries. And unlike Chile, Haiti had not had recent earthquakes to serve as warnings and reminders.

But still, I’m struck by how much human decisions can impact the outcome of natural disasters.

It’s by no means close to the tragedy of these two seismic events, but I’ve been close to a little earthquake myself this last week. On Sunday night, I got an email from the CEO of my new company informing all of us that we have entered an agreement to be acquired. For those of you unfamiliar with how this works, being acquired is usually a great thing for shareholders, often a good thing for clients, but a time of great uncertainty for employees. The ground shakes beneath your feet. Are you going to be part of the “efficiency”? Your entire department? Will the new employer scrap the parts of the company you like? How many of the other folks packing the cafeteria with you to listen to the announcement will be working somewhere else this time next year? Or is it you who will have yet another new cube?

But what can you do? It’s like a natural disaster — totally out of your control!

This is where that stark contrast comes into play. If Chile had thrown up it’s hands in the face of seismic uncertainty and said “What can you do? It’s a natural disaster!” many more of their citizens would not have seen the sun rise on February 28th. Instead, they planned, they prepared and they invested in ways to make sure that however the ground moved, the buildings will stand.

We can do the same in our lives, against our smaller disasters. We can make sure we have disability insurance. We can make some sacrifices in order to have that emergency savings account. We can actually read through those lists of preparations and stash the backpacks with emergency equipment in our basements. We can put aside enough water for 5 days per member of the household, and practice fire drills with our children. We can set up points of contact for if we are separated from our loved ones in times of tumult. We can make sure our skills and network stay up to date, even when we have no intention of switching jobs. We can continue to learn new technologies and master new tools.

Like Haiti, poverty or inability may prevent us from preparing the way we should. But for those for whom that isn’t the case, take this as a wakeup call. Are you as prepared as you can be for the disasters that can shake the foundations of your life? Because you are not helpless against them.

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Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

One thought on “An earthquake”

  1. Ha! Sermon material. We can also be prepared spiritually for the earthquakes. Quick, the sermon wall!

    Or a volcano can erupt with incredible force!

    Or a child can get a 104 degree temperature.


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