Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Earthquakes and Responsiveness

In 1960, a magnitude 9.5 earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded, struck Chile. Seismographs recorded seismic waves that traveled all around the Earth and shook it for many days. The quake also caused a tsunami that affected Alaska, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines; plus landslides, a flood and the eruption of a nearby volcano.

The recent earthquake in Haiti has me thinking about a number of different things. For starters, I—like most residents of quake-prone areas—have a particular empathy for the victims. Their plight is a reminder that I live on “There But For The Grace Of God, Go I” time, making it particularly important to enjoy the here and now. (It’s also a reminder to update my earthquake kit.)

Then there’s the stark realization that for all of our sophisticated knowledge and technology, we’re no less vulnerable to disasters than our ancestors. We may not consider ourselves playthings of the gods like the ancient Greeks did, but we have to admit that we’re at the mercy of some power (whatever name you apply to it) that can dramatically alter—or end—our lives in mere seconds.

But more than any of this, I keep thinking about why we have the same problem disaster after disaster. Why can’t we get help to the victims faster and more efficiently?

I understand that in the immediate aftermath, the only assistance is from survivors and any local first-responder agencies that can reach the area. But real help always seems to take days to arrive—days during which air pockets are depleted, collapsed lungs give out, and entombed initial survivors succumb to dehydration or their injuries. By the time the saws, jackhammers and jaws of life finally arrive, they’re used for recovery more than rescue.

I’m sure this delay is due to the overwhelming logistics that are needed to mobilize massive amounts of supplies and personnel. Still, I think we can—and need to—do better. To perhaps change our thinking and develop innovative ways to move resources from Point A to Point B.

One idea is to have UN strike teams stationed all over the world. They would have equipment and training customized to what was needed for the disasters most likely to befall that part of the world.

And much like firefighters, the strike teams would be ready to go at a moment’s notice. When a disaster occurred in their region, they would load into transport helicopters and drop into a safe zone identified by Google Earth or some other satellite photos. They could begin rescue work just hours after the catastrophe and serve as a bridge to larger relief efforts that would arrive in the coming days.

Of course creating strike teams and outposts would take money. I’m guessing that there aren’t too many countries willing to cut their defense budgets to fund a humanitarian one. We’d also need to have political will—a position difficult to find these days when political won’t is the norm.

So I doubt I’ll ever see such a seismic change in disaster responsiveness in my lifetime. But let’s hope it doesn’t take another Great Chilean Earthquake to shake up the world and remind us that we all in this together.


  1. Your point about not spending money on humanitarian aid is well taken. There are 10,000 troops from the US on the ground there, and still no water, food, or medical supplies for the victims.

  2. The reality is, there will be another disaster as big as the Chilean Earthquake... at best, as you said, we all need to be as self prepared as possible.