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The importance of good building codes


The devastation in Haiti was not just because the earth shook, and hard. The quake there was 7.0. Harder than the 6.5 quake that hit Northern California a day before (remember, though, that the Richter scale is logarithmic, so 7 is many times harder than 6.5), but not so hard that widespread death and destruction had to be the result. But when you combine a powerful earthquake with bad building codes, all bets are off:

Before about 1950, a given-sized earthquake would do about the same amount of damage in the developed and underdeveloped world, said Ross Stein, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif. Now the loss of life is typically 10 times higher in developing countries and the damage can be as much as 100 times higher, he said.

For a list of organizations doing relief work in Haiti, head here. They desperately need donations. Or you can text "90999" from your phone, which because of an agreement between mobile manufacturers, will add a $10 contribution to the Red Cross onto your phone bill.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Gregory Bull.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 15, 2010; 4:02 PM ET
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Though Haiti does not have a national building code, the Organization of American States has been working the institutional framework for the development of codes (according to their website). The key is not just to have the codes, but make sure they are enforced.

An example was the 1999 earthquake in Turkey that killed 17,000. Turkey has very good building codes (comparable to California) but many buildings (some estimate 65%) were not built to code. With the corruption and political instability in Haiti, it is unlike that even the best codes would have done much to lessen the damage as they likely would not have been enforced.

Posted by: mskidz | January 15, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

A more apt comparison would be the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California. (during the A's - Giants World Series). That was a 6.9 - 7.1, so its directly comparable in strength. That one resulted in 57 deaths.

I write this as I sit in a house that had to be rebuilt after that quake. I was 10 when that happened and I remember thinking that surely the world was ending. I can only imagine how much worse it would be if buildings were collapsing all around me, with all that death and carnage. My heart goes out to them all.

Posted by: nylund | January 15, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Implementing building codes costs money. Haiti has little money. They are probably using concrete for their buildings because they can't afford to buy lumber from anyone.

Posted by: Lomillialor | January 15, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

agree to the general point you're making, but effective building codes typically come after some semblance of capacity to adhere to a sound code.
not only is lumber unobtainable, builders in haiti routinely "water" down concrete with sand to make it go farther. the destruction that we're seeing is evidence of poverty, first and foremost.

Posted by: rt72 | January 15, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Any donation is good, but if you are able to do so, it is better to donate directly to the Red Cross ( or another charity than to donate via your telephone. It was reported yesterday on NPR that phone companies often will not forward SMS donations until the end of the fiscal quarter, and they'll wait until you've paid your phone bill at the very least. If you make the donation directly, the money will be available immediately.

Posted by: benjaminstuermer | January 15, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

And yet conservatives will deride building codes as nanny-state liberal interference in the daily lives of good Christian citizens, and an impediment to unfettered capitalism.

Posted by: ithacanforobama | January 15, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Building codes are good and all but as Lomillialor points out, this is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Most buildings are going to be makeshift and poor in quality. I was somewhat surprised that even the UN's building was so poorly built though.

Posted by: Tim_G | January 17, 2010 10:39 PM | Report abuse

"7 is many times harder than 6.5"

About 3 times harder, if I'm not mistaken.

10 ^ (7.0 - 6.5) = 3.16

Posted by: philarete | January 19, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

I'm a conservative, and I think building codes are a fine idea, as are lines on the road and standards for what color means stop and what color means go at the intersection. Building codes help to protect private property from needless destruction and, much like contract law, help insure that the person who purchases and invests in real estate is actually getting what they are paying for. Not all building codes are created equal--building codes for sometimes questionable "green construction" vs. building codes for safety and durability in the face of earthquakes or severe weather--but even questionable building codes are better than none.

At the very least, there should be some sort of standards in place to let investors and purchasers know if a building is about to withstand hurricane force winds or a certain level of earthquake--or a certain capacity of people and furniture of the second floor. Without such standards, much less building codes, such structures are impossible to insure and much more difficult to analyze in regards to "suitability for use".

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 19, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

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