Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Earthquake Index

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan -- Two months ago, Haiti lost over 200,000 people to a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. Last week, Chile saw about 800 casualties and extensive from an 8.8 rumble. As I drank my coffee this morning, my apartment in Kaohsiung City, along with the rest of Taiwan, was shaken by a 6.4 quake. As of now, there are 13 people injured as a result.

The earthquake's epicenter was in Kaohsiung County, so the city was particularly susceptible. Yet students stayed in school and most businesses operated in their normal fashion -- although President Ma Ying-jeou canceled his day's schedule to respond to the quake's damage.

Despite similar seismic conditions, Taiwan fared tremendously better than Haiti. (Sure, a 6.4 is six times less powerful than a 7.0, but how many times must you multiply 0 casualties to get 212,000?) In fact, Kaohsiung even has three times the population as Port-au-Prince.

The obvious factor in the disparate outcomes is economic development, where Taiwan has had a far greater capability to prepare for such quakes -- though the enforcement of building codes has been questioned by some. Even Chile, suffering such a strong seismic event, saw relatively few deaths in the context of Haiti. To the Chileans' credit, they have also invested extensively in preparedness. Yet it is also notable that inequality in Chile is about five times greater than in Taiwan, so there are more vulnerable people in Chile during a quake.

Earthquake deaths seem to be rough, natural indicators of equitable development -- or lack thereof. You can even look at a similar region over time: compare the deaths in undeveloped California during a 1906 quake of 7.8 and a 1992 quake of 7.3. The former, in San Francisco, took 3,000 lives, while the latter, near Los Angeles, killed exactly two people.

What doesn't change with development, though, is the instant feeling of uncertainty one experiences as Earth swings your apartment building around you.

This was originally published on RealClearWorld.

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