Every time I turn hear or read the news this week, it breaks my heart a little. I've heard wildly divergent numbers for the death toll in Haiti, but whatever it winds up being, we know this: its too high.
Now, no one in the world has asked my opinion, but I have to say something about the terrible toll this earthquake has taken on the people of Haiti. Obviously, earthquakes are not man made. Despite some crackpot opinions about global warming that I have heard, earthquakes happen because of the shifting of tectonic plates, deep in the earth. It has nothing to do with what humans do up on the surface. Since humans discovered what causes earthquakes, scientists have been searching for a way to predict and prevent them from occurring. Despite the enormous amount of research that has gone into this subject, we are no closer to doing so. Earthquakes remain unpredictable and dangerous. But that does not, in my opinion, let us off the hook for what has happened to the Haitian people.
Are you aware there was an earthquake in the very northern part of California the same week as the earthquake in Haiti? It was a 6.5, much less than the 7.0 that rocked Haiti, but still very significant. The California earthquake badly damaged parts of Eureka, causing over $20 million in damage. According to press reports, about 30 people were injured, one seriously enough that she had to be admitted to the hospital.
Let me repeat that: a significant earthquake hit a mid-sized US city and 30 people were injured. No one died.*
Is the devastation that hit Haiti just an "act of God," then? Emphatically, let me state that we do not have the technology to build "earthquake-proof" buildings. But we can build safer buildings. Clearly, we have the knowledge and technology to build buildings that can allow the occupants to exit safely. We also have the know-how to build the buildings that house first-responders (police, fire, paramedics, etc) so that only extremely large seismic events will disrupt them. This is the case in California, where our Emergency Services Act helps ensure that after a major event, there are at least some working police, firefighters and paramedics, and, equally important, the dispatchers needed to make sure those first responders get to the people who need them.
So let me return to the question that started this topic in my mind: did architects fail the people of Haiti? Should we be working as a profession to ensure that all people, everywhere, can reliably live in a safe place? It will not surprise you to find that I think the answer to this question is yes.
Fortunately, there are smart people in this world who beat me to the punch in thinking about these issues. I'm particularly impressed by the folks at Architecture For Humanity, who have been in business for over 10 years, working to bring safe shelter to people around the world. Check out their site and give if you feel so inclined.
* Since the Richter scale is logarithmic (for example, a 7.0 is 10 times more powerful than a 6.0), the Haiti earthquake was 5 times more powerful than one in Eureka. More equivalently, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which caused part of the Bay Bridge and a section of the freeway in Oakland to collapse, was a 6.9. From Wikipedia: Fifty-seven of the deaths were directly caused by the earthquake; six further fatalities were ruled to have been caused indirectly. In addition, there were 3,757 injuries as a result of the earthquake—400 severely hurt. The loss of life in the SF Bay Area during this earthquake was tragic, but it was not near the scale of what we are seeing in Haiti. I believe my point still stands.
Update: Some thoughts on Chile's earthquake as well.