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Haiti to improve quake preparedness

Country's first seismologists training to run a seismic network.

Eric Calais in Haiti Credit: Eric Calais

Nearly a year after a devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, plans are underway to install the equipment, people and programmes needed to help protect the country against future quakes — including improving the country's first seismic hazard map, and training its first two local seismologists.

Eric Calais, a geophysicist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, took a year-long leave of absence from his research in August to lead a United Nations disaster risk reduction programme in Haiti. He has come to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual meeting in San Francisco, California, this week to report on progress, and to highlight opportunities for scientists working with Haitians to improve their resilience against future quakes.

Making headway has been slower than he hoped, says Calais, in part because this sort of programme is breaking new ground. "Aid agencies usually focus on response. It's a new thing to spend money on prevention and mitigation," he says. "It's sad it takes 250,000 people dead to get to that point, but we're there now."

Soon after the quake, Calais spearheaded an effort to gather existing data about fault lines in Haiti — inferred from geological deformations measured through field work — and calculated how fast the stress in those faults is being re-loaded by the slow creep of tectonic plates. These data were fed into US geological models to produce Haiti's first hazard map in April1.

Calais then coordinated efforts to map soil types in the Port-au-Prince area, to determine how they amplify vibrations. Together, these maps give builders and architects vital information about the shaking that local buildings might experience over the next 50 years. Calais plans to hire engineers to map the soil in the rest of the country, which, along with most of the Caribbean, is also susceptible to earthquakes.

Working with two more UN employees, Calais has found funding to install 3 seismic stations in the country, starting in mid-2011. This will add to 3 seismometers that were put in place immediately after the earthquake, along with a network of about 10 accelerometers installed by the local bureau of mines and energy. Before the quake, he says, the only seismometer in the country was installed in a high school as a teaching tool. "The option taken in the past was to do nothing about it at all. We know now that's not a viable option," says Calais.

Local talent

Most importantly, says Calais, he is working to ensure that there are people in Haiti who can interpret and use the seismic data. "There are no seismologists," he says of the current situation in Haiti. Claude Prepetit, a geotechnical engineer at the Haitian Mines and Energy Bureau in Port-au-Prince, took it upon himself to advocate about earthquake risks, says Calais, but he had very little impact on his own. "There's basically one person in Haiti who has been doing this; they need an army," says Calais.

There are no geological-science programmes at Haiti's state university, but Calais arranged for two Haitian civil-engineering students — Roby Douilly and Steeve Symithe — to begin seismology master's degrees at Purdue in August. The students received grants from the Voilà Foundation, a charity organization set up by the Haitian mobile-phone company Voilà. "It was the January 12th earthquake that motivate[d] me to study seismology," wrote Douilly in an e-mail to Nature. "Someone has to take the lead."

Having local talent is important, says Calais, because any of the resources installed in Haiti won't be sustainable without researchers in the area "keeping the network alive". Local seismologists can also help to ensure that good building codes are created and maintained, and can campaign for earthquake awareness in government, he says. Calais is hoping to start a seismological research lab to make it worthwhile for Haitian students to return to the country, although for now there are no concrete plans.

"It's going to be a long-term project: we're talking at least 5 years of work before resilience has improved significantly," he says.

Deeper issues

In the meantime, Haiti faces a raft of problems, from civil unrest over elections to a cholera epidemic and environmental degradation.

Shimon Wdowinski, a geophysicist at the University of Miami in Florida and another attendee at the AGU meeting, argued that the country's mass deforestation may have actually triggered January's earthquake. In work that has yet to be published, he estimates that sediments loosened by erosion and not trapped on land by tree roots may have washed into the sea off Port-au-Prince, providing enough weight to push the fault line there into action.

Calais notes that there are huge margins of error in the assumptions on which Wdowinski's work is based, and that the earthquake would have happened without this trigger — although perhaps at a later date. There are other, more pressing reasons to deal with deforestation, he adds.

The main difficulty in addressing earthquake risks lies in politics rather than science. "It's not very difficult to convince people that earthquake hazard is important," says Calais; rather, the problem is with orchestrating the actions and agendas of different groups working in the region. "That makes it difficult but also very interesting," he says.


  1. Frankel, A., Harmsen, S., Mueller, C., Calais, E. & Haase, J. Documentation for Initial Seismic Hazard Maps for Haiti Open-File Report 2010-1067 (US Geological Survey, 2010).

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Nature Geoscience special on Haiti

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Eric Calais's Haiti page

Voilà Foundation

AGU meeting

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Jones, N. Haiti to improve quake preparedness. Nature (2010).

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