Quake Toll Amplified By Geography, Lax Construction

The death toll from Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti is not yet known, though it is expected to be high. That's partly because of low construction standards in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and partly because the magnitude 7 quake was centered so close to the city. The fault, which had been quiet for years, released a huge amount of energy.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Now, that earthquake destroyed public buildings, including the United Nations headquarters in Port-au-Prince. The chief of the U.N. is among about a hundred people reported missing. The presidential palace was damaged, though we're told the president survived. The National Cathedral was damaged, and the Roman Catholic archbishop is reported among the dead. This is what the city looked like after sunset to Paul McPhun of Doctors Without Borders.

M: These people are sleeping on all the roads where we have liked to be able to move last night, the roads that are not completely obstructed with rubble - massive destruction, including much of (unintelligible) infrastructure, also. And everywhere we go, a massive demand from people to help them with trapped family members, with people who are suffering from major, major injuries.

DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

McPhun describes the urgent, immediate needs of the population.

M: The reality, what we're seeing is severe traumas, head wounds, crushed limbs, severe problems that cannot be dealt with with the level of medical care that we currently have available with no infrastructure, really, to support it. So our major priority and focus is to reestablish, as soon as possible, a secondary level surgical capacity in the country.

AMOS: President Obama this morning pledged unwavering support to help Haiti recover from this disaster.

INSKEEP: We are just now beginning to learn the extent of the devastation, but the reports and images that we've seen of collapsed hospitals, crumbled homes and men and women carrying their injured neighbors through the streets are truly heart-wrenching. Indeed, for a country and a people who are no strangers to hardship and suffering, this tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible.

INSKEEP: Now, we don't know the death toll from yesterday's earthquake in Haiti. We do expect the death toll to be high, and that is partly because of low construction standards in Port-au- Prince. It's also partly because the quake of 7.0 magnitude was centered so close to the city.

Here's NPR's Richard Harris.

RICHARD HARRIS: Large quakes frequently occur along the boundaries between the huge tectonic plates of the Earth's crust, which grind against one another. And scientists have known that Haiti sits on the boundary between the North American plate and the Caribbean plate. Geoff Abers, at Columbia University's Lamont- Doherty Earth Observatory, says it's the timing of the quake that came as a surprise.

AMOS: This is a fault segment that has been really quiet for about the last 200 years. There was one earthquake in the 1860s, but most of the larger, known earthquakes are back in the 1700s.

HARRIS: That means Haitians don't think of themselves as living in earthquake country. And it also means there's been a couple of centuries of geological stress that's built up on the fault. So the quake released a huge amount of energy. Some 30 to 60 miles of fault ruptured, according to preliminary estimates, and the ground shook in the initial quake for tens of seconds. The earthquake started only about six miles down, which is relatively shallow for a major earthquake. That made the shaking on the surface even more intense. There have been also more than a dozen aftershocks at magnitude five or higher, which is common after a large quake. Those aftershocks are likely to continue for days.

AMOS: One of the concerns right now is, there's a lot of structures that were badly damaged in the main shock, and they're now being exposed to these late aftershocks, some of which are quite significant.

HARRIS: Abers says geology is not the only reason this quake caused so much damage.

AMOS: The problem is, this is a fault - like the San Andreas Fault - that is on land and travels very close to major population centers. And this particular one goes very close to Port-au- Prince, where there is a tremendous amount of population density.

HARRIS: One consequence of that dense population is that people build even on the steep hillsides, and those hillsides are highly vulnerable during an earthquake. Landslides are common. Another big problem is that many buildings in Haiti are not built to modern standards. Brick and cinderblock buildings may not be adequately reinforced with steel bar, so they are not built to take the kind of shaking that this quake delivered.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And just one image from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, gives us an idea of the kind of devastation many residents face. It's one of many images we could choose. As a reporter watched yesterday, a teenage girl stood atop a car, watching the collapsed remains of an apartment building where several men were pulling on a foot sticking from the rubble.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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