Haiti's Lack of Seismic Monitoring Stations Will Complicate Rebuilding

Years before this week's deadly earthquake in Haiti, scientists urged the government there to install a network of seismic monitoring stations because of concerns that the fault near the capital Port-au-Prince was becoming active. Because they were never installed, rebuilding the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere -- expected to cost billions -- will be far more difficult than it would have been otherwise.Scientists first noticed that the fault responsible for the Haitian quake was active in 2003. Their curiosity was piqued because Haiti had experienced major earthquakes in 1751 and 1770, though their exact location is not known.

Action Was Never Taken

About four years later, their suspicions were confirmed and communicated to the Haitian government, according to Purdue University scientist Eric Calais, who participated in the meetings, which last occurred in May 2008. The Haitian authorities promised to take action, but never did. Even if the stations were there, it's unclear how many lives could have been saved, given the massive numbers of poorly constructed buildings in Haiti that wound up toppling in the earthquake.

"We were extremely well received by the officials in Haiti," Calais tells DailyFinance. "They did not do much about it (the information)."

The Haitians did not have enough time to react anyway. Officials tried to find funding for the monitoring stations and "have been close a few times," says Calais, who plans to travel to Haiti to survey the damage himself. Haiti is the only country with a history of earthquakes without equipment to detect them. Puerto Rico has about 25 stations and the Dominican Republic has 7. Earthquake-prone California has about 300.

Aftershocks For A Year

Monitoring stations are still needed. Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade, head of the Puerto Rico Seismic Network, tells DailyFinance that aftershocks will probably continue for a year and though they will lessen in intensity over time, some may wind up being severe. The information also would be useful in developing Haiti's building codes.

There is blame to go around in looking at the root causes of the disaster. Many things that could have been done were not. For example, a program to train Haitians in seismology at the University of Puerto Rico, where she also is affiliated, never got off the ground.

"We were disappointed," she says, adding it would have been "very very helpful" to the Haitian government.

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