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Haiti’s vulnerability to earthquakes: the case for a historical perspective and a better analysis of risks
Yvio Georges and François Grünewald

The risk of earthquakes appears to have been overlooked in disaster risk reduction policies in Haiti. Prevention plans tend to concentrate on climatic phenomena. The fact that every sector (social, productive, infrastructure) was affected by the earthquake of 12 January 2010, means that it should serve as the basis for a new risk management culture for the population, businesses and political decision-makers.

 I - Vulnerability and the consequences of large-scale earthquakes

Large-scale earthquakes generally have consequences which outstretch the response capacity of local authorities. They cause considerable human and economic damage. The population loses a great deal of what it has built up over the years and public service infrastructure is often severely damaged.

The earthquake of 12 January 2010 in Haiti is an example of such a disaster. It caused devastation in the cities of Port-au-Prince, Léogâne, Gressier, Grand Goâve and Petit Goâve in the Western department and the city of Jacmel in the South East. The earthquake affected vital sectors, in particular the social sector, production and infrastructure and caused considerable damage which has been estimated at 7 804 million US$ [1].

The country and the population were very vulnerable to disasters before the earthquake of 12 January. Numerous factors such as pauperisation, pressure on the tree canopy, the absence of building standards, anarchic urban development in areas at risk to earthquakes and to flooding, the high population density in certain areas, the lack of infrastructure, bad planning and spatial organisation all contributed to creating vulnerability to “socio-natural” disasters, a concept which implies that a natural event only becomes a disaster when it affects a badly-prepared society.

 II - Haiti and earthquakes

2.1. The tectonic situation in Haiti

The fault lines in Haiti are well known and the tectonics of the Caribean region are monitored by different observatories in France, in the USA and in the sub-region itself. The island of Haiti is located on the border between the American and Caribbean tectonic plates. These plates move around 2 cm per year. These movements cause seismic movement along active fault lines which have been identified in two main areas [2] of the country. The first of these is in the sea, along the North coast. This fault line runs from East to West and extends into the Cibao valley in the Dominican Republic.

The second fault line crosses the peninsula of Southern Haiti from Tiburon in the west, crossing Port-au-Prince and continuing to the east via Enriquillo valley in the Dominican Republic (Figure 1). According to the experts of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), Haiti’s southern peninsula fault line had not produced any significant earthquakes in recent decades, but was probably the source of the historic earthquakes of 1751 and 1770.



[1] Haïti Earthquake PDNA: Assessment of damage, losses, general and sectoral needs, 2010.

[2] http://www.bme.gouv.ht