Friday, March 05, 2010

Getting the Wrong Lessons From Natural Disaster Responses

Haiti was hit with a strong earthquake. It killed more than 200,000 people (and the ultimate death toll is likely far above that level.

Chile was hit with a massive 8.8 earthquake, which was several magnitudes more powerful. Less than 1,000 were killed.

Taiwan was hit with a 6.6 quake, which was slightly smaller than that of the Haiti quake. No deaths were reported in that quake and the damage was limited.

What was the difference between those outcomes?

Joe Conason thinks that the difference is in the nature of the political system.
If the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti carry any message for those of us fortunate enough not to live in those places, perhaps it is that government regulation could save your life — while right-wing ideology may kill you someday.


In a society with sane politics, rules and regulations needed to safeguard life don't provoke much debate, even on the furthest ends of the ideological spectrum.

Everyone realizes that there are certain dangers to which anyone can fall victim; protecting and insuring against those dangers is a social responsibility, a government function and a measure of human progress.

Here in the United States, however, anti-government ideology is a pandemic mental tic that has now developed into a virulent disorder afflicting a large number of citizens — including many of our self-styled conservatives. Infuriated because their party cannot permanently control the White House and the Congress, they have gradually persuaded themselves that all government is evil, that all taxation is theft and that all regulation is tyranny. Or at least that is the tone of their rhetoric.

If the Chileans had adopted this kind of manic and reflexive attitude, many more of them would undoubtedly be dead today. The "free market" extremists who call themselves conservative probably wouldn't worry much about the loss of life, because they are far more concerned with ideological consistency than with practical effects. But the rest of us might consider the wiser approach of Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian economist whose work is often cited by the extremists when they claim to be defending freedom.
Conason doesn't realize that his argument is undermined by the fact that the Chilean government first instituted its stringent building codes following the massive 9.5 quake (one of the largest ever recorded). That it further strengthened it decades later is besides the point. Chile had learned the lesson in blood- it needed to improve its seismic codes because many structures would otherwise crumble and kill and maim.

Taiwan has stringent building codes that were likewise born of blood - deadly quakes and improved science have resulted in better construction techniques.

Haiti has no such history. Strong quakes are simply not a part of the legacy of Haiti's collective memory and no quake has struck within the last 100 years that was sufficient to show that the building of structures without rebar and modern seismic system would have devastating consequences.

The US likewise has a mixed history of improved seismic codes born in blood. California and the West Coast has endured major quakes and significant death tolls and each quake has resulted in incremental improvements in construction practices and engineering, but many thousands of structures are still ill-equipped for major quakes. Other parts of the country aren't nearly as prepared, even though they've seen significant quakes including Charleston, South Carolina and the New Madrid area.

Moreover, changes to building codes often result in disagreements over their applicability to existing structures and grandfathering of structures means that while new buildings may survive major quakes, older structures might not - and could conceivably affect nearby intact structures by collapsing into them.

We can only hope that Haiti learns the lessons of improved seismic construction techniques that would also result in improved resilience to hurricanes and severe storms but the country's dire economic situation makes those needed changes all the more difficult to come by.

What we do know about government and economics is that totalitarian regimes and dictatorships and failed states are much less capable of providing sufficient means to protect their citizens from natural disasters and to engage in relief and recovery efforts. Affluent countries are much more capable of absorbing such natural disasters and rebounding.

Chavez in Venezuela or Castro in Cuba would be hard pressed to deal with a significant natural disaster, even though they're left leaning regimes. They've decimated their infrastructure and the capability to respond to natural disasters.

If hit by a similar sized natural disaster, North Korea would not do well in a natural disaster, while South Korea would likely end up providing assistance and shrugging off the disaster - and the South would likely come to the aid of the North while the North never could because it would lack the resources to do so.

No, the true test to whether a country can build survivable structures isn't whether they lean left or right, but whether they've endured the loss in blood and sweat from such natural disasters to attune them to the existence of the threat and the affluence to make sure that the damage can be minimized. And on that front - countries that promote capitalism and wealth are more likely to be able to provide on that basis than regimes that socialize the care (see China's infrastructure failures resulting from the Sichuan quake that killed tens of thousands of kids in their schools when they collapsed despite claims from their leadership that the structures were safe).

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