Two Monster Quakes, Two Different Stories Haiti and Chile experienced massive earthquakes with distinctly different effects. A look at factors that determined the destruction, the death toll and recovery.
NPR logo Two Monster Quakes, Two Different Stories

Two Monster Quakes, Two Different Stories

So far, it appears that the damage and death toll in Chile will prove far less severe than in Haiti, despite the fact that the Chilean quake last weekend was, by some ways of measuring these events, 500 times more powerful than the quake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12. More than 200,000 died in the Haiti earthquake. The death toll of in Chile was about 700, but expected to rise.

How Powerful?

NPR's Richard Harris notes that there are two ways to compare quakes. One is to compare ground shaking, the other is to compare energy released. An 8.8 magnitude quake (Chile) releases 500 times more energy than a 7 (Haiti). Energy, Harris says, gives a much more realistic measure of tsunami potential ... and overall destructive potential over the range of shaking.

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Here are some of the determining factors, according to experts, on the destruction caused by each quake:

Epicenter: In Chile, the epicenter of the 8.8 magnitude quake was 70 miles from the nearest large city, Concepcion. The epicenter of Haiti's 7.0 magnitude quake was just 15 miles from Port-au-Prince, the densely populated capital. On an index used to measure the intensity of ground shaking during an earthquake, nearly 3 million Haitians were exposed to "extreme" or "violent" shaking. Because the epicenter of the Chilean quake was offshore and farther from major population centers, no one was exposed to the most intense ground shaking.

Population Concentration: Haiti's quake tore through its most populous city, the capital Port-au-Prince. Chile's quake caused damage in the capital, Santiago, and in the large city of Concepcion, but it appears that rural coastal towns may have absorbed the brunt of the quake's power. An estimated 1.2 million people were left homeless by the Haiti quake; some 500,000 homes were damaged in the Chile quake.

Preparation: Chile has a functioning government and modern infrastructure that was better prepared for an earthquake. Construction standards are higher. Much of Haiti's urban population lives in densely populated shantytowns and Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, has a government rife with corruption and inefficiencies.

Tsunami: Although there was a tsunami triggered by Haiti's quake, its impact was dwarfed by the deaths directly attributable to the quake (more than 200,000 killed, according to current estimates). The tsunami in Chile appears to have been more significant, but the coastal area where it hit is sparsely populated and the people who live there understand to take higher ground to avoid a tsunami in the event of a major quake.

Recovery: Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, was near the epicenter and the government's ability to function was severely impaired by the disaster. Although there was significant damage to some areas of the Chilean capital, the destruction appears to have been largely confined to historic buildings. Most of the more modern structures in Santiago were engineered to withstand seismic events. Chile's more modern airport and seaport infrastructure will also likely make the logistics of international aid delivery less challenging than it has been in Haiti.