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Building Codes, Preparation Re-examined After Chile’s Quake

March 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As aftershocks continue to strike Chile after Saturday's, Judy Woodruff talks to a crisis expert and a quake researcher about how the damage from this powerful quake differs from a less severe one that killed hundreds of thousands in Haiti.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The Chile quake comes just weeks after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, which killed an estimated quarter-of-a-million people.

Here to discuss the two disasters are Nan Buzard, the senior director for international response and programs at the American Red Cross. She is coordinating that group’s response to both the Haiti and Chile earthquakes. She returned from Haiti on Friday. And David Applegate, he’s senior science adviser of earthquake and geologic hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Thank you both for being here.

David Applegate, to you first.

Help us understand the difference between these two earthquakes. What — what happened differently under the earth, and what did that cause on the surface?

DAVID APPLEGATE, senior science adviser for earthquake and geologic hazards, U.S. Geological Survey: Well, the similarity between them is that they are both plate boundaries.

They are areas where the Earth’s tectonic plates are — in the case of Haiti, they’re grinding mostly side to side, similar to, for example, the San Andreas Fault, a strike-slip fault. And it’s on land, so it’s — the fault is directly adjacent to in this case the urban area of Port-au-Prince.

In the case of Chile, it is a tectonic plate boundary, but they are going against one another. The oceanic plate is diving underneath the continent of South America. That is what — you generate a great deal of activity, volcanoes, large earthquakes.

It means that the earthquake itself was offshore, so that the population is somewhat further away from the most intense shaking. But it happened over a giant zone, 500 times more energy released than in Haiti.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, much more powerful than the — an 8.8 earthquake, much more powerful than the quake in Haiti, and, yet, the devastation in Haiti was so much worse. Why?

DAVID APPLEGATE: Absolutely.

Well, we can compare the amount — the number of people exposed to severe shaking in the two cases. And if you look at that, if you were in Haiti, you were about 400 times more likely to die than you were in Chile, exposed to the same amount of shaking. And what that says is the incredible…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because it was closer to the surface?

DAVID APPLEGATE: Well, actually, even taking that into account, what it says is the vulnerability. So, in other words, even if they are exposed to the same kind of shaking, you are that much more likely to have perished in Haiti simply because it’s such a vulnerable city.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nan Buzard, what about from a humanitarian and a rescue standpoint for the Red Cross? What is the difference in — in dealing with these?

NAN BUZARD, senior director for international response and programs, American Red Cross: Well, David really put his finger on it when he talked about vulnerability.

In Haiti, we had a very underdeveloped country in the first place with a very poor infrastructure, not particularly robust civil defense systems, not very strong media or communications. So, when that quake struck in Haiti, all of the infrastructure that would you normally see in responding to a large disaster was almost absent.

The U.N. was taken down. The government was taken down physically. Media collapsed. Haiti, the earthquake happened right in the port. It was the heart of all the logistics for the entire country. In Chile, you are seeing that Santiago is slightly affected, but it’s still functioning. It’s a much more developed country. And its infrastructure and its systems are all in place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in terms of the help that Chile is going to need from the outside, how do you compare?

NAN BUZARD: It’s actually too early to tell. The assessments are just happening now. I think that the country itself has said that they are seeing that it is much greater than they anticipated. And I think that’s — that’s interesting.

The Red Cross has constructed a flyover today. We have already seen that there ‘s going to be need for some kind of water and sanitation, because the water supply has been disrupted over a long period of — of land. We see that there’s a lot of people who are going to need some kind of sheltering options.

But it’s too early to tell what exactly is going to be required from the international community. Unlike, Haiti you have seen that there has been almost a 48-, 72-hour delay from the country to say, we want international assistance. And, even now, they haven’t exactly said what they want, how they want it, and when they want it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, over 200,000 deaths in Haiti vs. so far 700. That number will go up, but a vast difference in terms of casualties.

NAN BUZARD: It’s shocking. And I — I think that anyone who doesn’t understand the importance of building codes and accountability to informing and making sure that those building codes are followed is critical. But it’s also just the entire disaster response and preparedness capacity of a country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Applegate, help us understand sort of what — we can’t see everything in Chile. We can only get pictures from different places.

What — if — if we were able to see what’s on the ground, help us understand, from an infrastructure standpoint, what a quake of that force would do to a country like Chile?

DAVID APPLEGATE: Well, infrastructure is a — is the key term there.

One of the things in a giant subduction zone earthquake, such as what we saw, a lot of the energy is in these very long-period waves. They are almost big rolling waves. Those are ones that, for example, small houses can often ride out fairly well.

But it is big structures like bridges, like tall buildings, industrial facilities, that — and water treatment facilities, as was mentioned. They often will take a much harder hit in it. Think about the difference between a violin — it vibrates at a very high frequency, a cello or a bass at a lower frequency. The same thing is true with — with large structures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we were hearing in Gwen’s interview that these newer — some of these newer buildings were not apparently built according to the codes as strictly, perhaps, as some of the buildings built several decades ago. What do you expect to see or learn in that — in that vein?

DAVID APPLEGATE: Well, that is very troubling.

One of the — the great strengths for Chile has been the fact that, with their history of earthquakes, there is a lot of awareness. They have some of the best building codes outside of the U.S. or Japan. And it all comes down to enforcement. And that is an issue anywhere that — to contend with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were also telling us that there are some real lessons for the United — for North America in all of this, because of the kind of quake that happened and what could happen in our continent.

DAVID APPLEGATE: Well, that’s right.

We have subduction zones, these same areas where plates are colliding against plates, off of our Pacific Northwest, starting in Northern California, all the way up to British Columbia, and also off of Alaska, and, indeed, our territories in the Caribbean as well.

So, there are several areas where we have very similar potential for earthquakes. Back in 1700, the Pacific Northwest had a magnitude-9 earthquake, a very similar sort of subduction zone quake. Off of Alaska in 1964, the Great Alaska Quake, that was the second biggest quake in the — since 1900. We just experienced the fifth biggest one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nan Buzard, in terms of help that you — that the Red Cross and other organizations can give to Chile, on top of Haiti now, does it become a competition for resources, or how do you see it?

NAN BUZARD: I wouldn’t call it a competition.

I do think that, whenever you have back-to-back large natural disasters, or any kind of disasters, you do see a stretching of the fabric of the humanitarian response system worldwide. Just at a physical level, the government of Haiti has requested — I mean, the government of Chile has requested tents.

There may be issues of whether tents are the right thing or not, but there’s only so many tents on the global market. A lot of them have been purchased for Haiti. So, it will be interesting to see what we can actually identify and find as non-food items, or NFIs.

I’m more concerned about the human resources that are required, just because all of the large aid agencies are stretched. We have some of our best people serving around the world and a lot in Haiti. And to then bring additional resources into Chile is going to be a stretch for some.

I think what you are going to see in this disaster in Chile is a lot of regional response. I think you’re going to see a lot of the countries around Chile in South America, for a whole host of political and social and language and economic reasons, come to — to the aid of Chile, perhaps more than a huge international response.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we already heard about Argentina…

NAN BUZARD: Yes, exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … coming — coming to their aid.

And very quickly, David Applegate, what lessons are you looking to learn, as a geologist, about what happened?

DAVID APPLEGATE: Well, the great — any time you have a disaster like this, you do have this responsibility to learn everything you can.

Given the fact that we have very similar kinds of shaking we can anticipate off our own coast, we need to understand how that infrastructure responded to this, so that, whether it’s in the U.S., in Japan, elsewhere, we can really know, what are the codes that are needed, and how can they be carried out?

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, David Applegate, Nan Buzard, we thank you both for being with us.

NAN BUZARD: Thank you very much. Thank you.

DAVID APPLEGATE: Thank you.

NAN BUZARD: Good night.