4/28/10 - haiti

In today's excerpt - numerous and repeated earthquakes have been recorded in Haiti from its beginnings as a European colony, yet Haiti, once one of the richest colonies in the New World, long ignored safe building codes:

"The earthquake that struck the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on January 12th killed over 230,000 people according to recent estimates. ... The West Indies in general and the island of Hispaniola in particular—which is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic—has, since the early 16th century, been well known as a quake-prone area. Located at the border of the Caribbean and the North American tectonic plates, several fault systems span the island, resulting in frequent earthquakes and a long record of destruction over the past 500 years.

"Europeans, from the beginning of their exploration and colonization of the region, recorded many earthquakes in annals and travel books. As early as 1564, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in the eastern part of Hispaniola destroyed the cities of Concepción de la Vega and Santo Domingo. ... During the 18th century more than 100 earthquakes were recorded, five of which caused significant damage. In 1701, a violent tremor destroyed several houses in Léogâne, 18 miles west of Port-au-Prince. Earthquakes particularly affected the growth of the capital. The extreme devastation of the quake of 1751—just two years after Port-au-Prince's foundation—totally destroyed Port-au-Prince. ...

"Following this heavy blow, the population of Port-au-Prince was strongly encouraged to rethink building methods. A chronicler wrote that 'the earthquake of 1751, which overthrew three quarters of the houses, suggested the idea of rebuilding only with timber'. However, wooden structures were not without risk either, as fires (such as the one that devastated the city in 1784) represented another danger. The same dilemma over building materials faced the population later that century when it came to rebuild after [the 1770] earthquake:

"The 1770 earthquake was not the last one which Haiti and Port-au-Prince had to endure in earlier centuries. On May 7th, 1842, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed several towns on the north coast of the island and killed several thousand people. Le Cap Haitien, in particular, a town of about 10,000 inhabitants, was transformed in seconds into a pile of ruins. In Port-de-Paix, a tsunami covered the town under 15ft of water. ...

"Even if the 1842 earthquake was the last major one to strike Haiti before this year, tremors occur frequently on the island and are often felt in Port-au-Prince. Throughout the 20th century, several quakes have been recorded: between 1946 and 1953, at least five of a magnitude greater than 7.0 occurred on the northeast coast of the island. The last earthquake to have caused some damage, with a 6.5 magnitude, was in 2003 in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.

"In short, earthquakes in Hispaniola are neither a new phenomena nor a forgotten one. As recently as 2008, a team of geologists warned that an earthquake of a magnitude which might reach 7.2 could happen anytime in the Port-au-Prince region."


Jean-Francois Mouhot


"The Tragic Annals of Haiti"


History Today


April 2010


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