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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


 III - Factors which make the impact of an earthquake worse

Several factors increase the risk that an earthquake will become a veritable human catastrophe.

3.1. Architectural issues

The change from timber to stone and then concrete block construction, in the absence of earthquake resistant standards, made the earthquakes all the more deadly. Most of those who were killed in the major earthquakes were those who lived in stone buildings, because timber constructions are more flexible and are more resistant to the kind of stress produced by movements of the earth’s crust.

But as wood has become more and more expensive and due to the transfer of cultural models in housing, cement and concrete blocks have become the norm since the early 60s. All the buildings built since then are made of concrete. But though concrete houses are a sign of wealth, not all these houses have been built in accordance with standards: little fortification or use of wall ties and no doubt attempts to cut costs by limiting the lengths of steel reinforcing bars, by limiting the amount of “full concrete” fortification and increasing the percentage of sand used. Entire areas such as Paco and around the Champs de Mars and parts of Bourdon and Delmas were made more fragile as a result. For many areas on steep slopes where the poor and middle classes live without real property rights (Canapé vert, Ravine Pintade, Bristout Bobin), the hope of getting richer by having a bigger family and the transfer of funds from the diaspora led to the establishment of “vertical growth” housing, each level theoretically designed to be able to have another built on top. But again, the resistance of materials was badly calculated, earthquake resistance norms and rules were not taken into account and cost-cutting on concrete reduced the ability of buildings to resist the tremors. In the end, the poorest areas such as the large shanty towns of Cité Soleil and Martissant, the huts built on piles of refuse next to the canals along the coast on the road towards Carrefour only sustained a little damage.


3.2. The issue of geological vulnerability and town and country planning

Vulnerability to earthquakes is also a question of town and country planning: certain geological areas (certain areas where there is limestone in Port-au-Prince and certain regions where there are fault lines) are theoretically more at risk than others. These can be identified and more specific and restrictive building and planning regulations can be applied.


3.3. The absence of a first aid culture

In a country which is so exposed to risks, the ability to very quickly provide first aid and to take the appropriate action to save lives in the first minutes or hours would undoubtedly have saved many lives. Too many people bled to death after having been rescued from the debris. Very few people know first aid in Haiti. This should be a key factor of the national risk management strategy.