Haitian officials on Sunday said at least 12 people died and 188 were injured in a 5.9-magnitude earthquake that rocked the northern portion of the island Saturday, leaving a swath of damaged and destroyed buildings and a fearful population.
The quake and three aftershocks, including one 5.2-magnitude aftershock on Sunday afternoon, are what seismic experts consider to be “small to moderate.”
And while the death toll, concentrated in the northwestern port city of Port-de-Paix, remained a tiny fraction of the more than 300,000 who died in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, experts said it underscores their warnings about how vulnerable Haiti remains to seismic activity and the devastation a larger quake will most likely have.
“There exists the possibility to have an earthquake up to a magnitude of 8,” said Claude Prépetit, Haiti’s top earthquake expert who heads the country’s Bureau of Mines and Energy.
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Prépetit, a geological engineer,said the only reason there weren’t more deaths and destruction is because the quake was a 5.9 on the Richter scale. But the deaths and damage to buildings even with a 5.9 quake, he said, show “Haiti’s vulnerability, and the situation of the buildings isn’t good at all.”
“If it was a 7, it would have been 40 times stronger than what we saw yesterday or if it was an 8, 900 times stronger,” Prépetit told the Miami Herald in an interview from Port-au-Prince where tremors were also felt. “It would have been considerable, even more catastrophic than January 12. The risk in Haiti exists for the greater northern region..”
All of Haiti is in a risky zone, he said, noting that the bureau had registered 26 quakes between 2.9 and 4.6 on the Richter scale during the first eight months of this year alone.
Two fault lines running between Fond Parisien in the west, where Port-au-Prince is located, and Tiburon in the south, “are truly dangerous and can produce an even more devastating earthquake than the one that happened on Jan. 12, 2010, that was a 7.0 magnitude” quake, Prépetit said.
“We can’t say when it will happen or what magnitude it will be. The only way to diminish the destruction is through construction codes. The institutions that are here need to do controls. and apply the measures,” he said. “We also have to educate the population, especially the schools, to teach children how they should react.”
He reiterated an earlier call he had made for an evaluation of older construction and public buildings like police stations and hospitals.
“This will cost money and it will take time, but we have to start so that we can minimize the damage before the next big earthquake happens,” Prépetit said..
Saturday’s earthquake happened shortly after 8 p.m., triggering panic in and around Port-de-Paix, a coastal city with a population of 462,000 that was spared in 2010. Unsure what to do, many residents ran out into streets. Among the dead: a young man who fell off a balcony in the pandemonium. He was dead by the time he arrived at the emergency room of a government-run hospital Immaculee de Conception, where doctors and staff had fled. A 7-year-old child also died after a wall fell on him.
On Sunday morning, as disaster volunteers with the Office of Civil Protection continued search and rescue efforts throughout the northwest and areas of Gros Morne in the Artibonite, Port-de-Paix police were attempting to remove the child’s lifeless body from underneath the rubble. The main police station was among the buildings that suffered damages.
“Things are terrible in Port-de-Paix even if what happened here is not the same as what happened in Port-au-Prince in 2010,” said Claudedan Borge, a local resident who lived through the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince and said he relocated to the northwestern port city because he thought it was safe. “It’s so grave and terrible... I don’t feel well. I’m traumatized. I never thought I would live through something like this again.”
Heavy rain hampered efforts to assess damages and rescue the injured overnight, and added to the sense of fear.
Borge said people didn’t know what to do, afraid to go inside in case another quake hit. “They had no choice but to just stand in the rain.”
The United Nations and the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince both issued condolence statements while aid organizations announced the deployment of teams into the northwest to determine needs.
Haitian President Jovenel Moise, who is from the region — along with his wife — visited Port-de-Paix Sunday. Moise said Haiti welcomed the solidarity of the international community, but it will take the lead in coordinating any response.
“The prime minister is working to get all of the documentation,” Moise said, “so that the government could speak with the international community and the government can tell the international community, “Here is what our problems are. Here are the solutions that we have started to put in place,’ and if we need help, to tell them in what sense we need it.”
Haiti’s national police were instructed Sunday by the government to stop vehicles carrying humanitarian aid to the quake victims without written authorization from the country’s civil protection department.
Frank Gacon, an engineer who is employed with Haiti’s public works department, said as his fellow workers and disaster volunteers from the Office of Civil Protection fanned out across the city to assess the damage, they saw that the majority of damaged or destroyed homes had been constructed haphazardly and had not followed construction norms.
He described a chaotic scene during the quake, even as his oldest son was injured by debris that grazed his head. “The majority of the people who were victims were people who ran, jumped and fell,” Gacon said.
Last month during a climate change conference alongside the United Nations General Assembly, Moise said during a speech that Haiti was better prepared for an earthquake today than it had been in 2010. Prépetit said the country does have more knowledge about seismic activity thanks to monitoring devices throughout the country.
“But preparedness requires a process that is very long. A huge effort needs to take place as far as the construction of buildings, and education,” he said. “We cannot say that we are 100 percent prepared. It’s a long process.”
Haiti’s parliament still has not voted a 2012 national building code into law. And there is no inspection process in place to ensure that new construction is quake resistant — despite efforts in recent years to show Haitians how to construct buildings that can withstand earthquakes.
Also, older buildings, which are all over the northern region, have not been reinforced.
“A huge earthquake could always cause those buildings to collapse,” Prépetit said. “There have been studies that have been done that show the kind of soil we have in the north is not very good....a lot of studies have shown that the risks are grave if there is a huge earthquake.”
Prépetit and other seismic experts said the fact many people’s first reaction was to run rather than to duck under a table or something strong to shield them from falling debris shows that Haiti has not done enough to prepare itself.
“There are several aspects to being more quake resistant,” said Reginald Desroches, the dean of engineering at Rice University in Houston, who has visited Haiti frequently since 2010 to lend his expertise on preparedness and construction. “You don’t run outside, which people often do, and things fall on them. People need to be better trained.”
He warned that “Haiti really needs to start taking this seriously before a larger event. It’s just a race against time before a larger earthquake hits the country again.”