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The politics of disaster: does government regulation save lives in catastrophic earthquakes?

Guest Blogger

How a government responds after a disaster usually captures the headlines. But often far more important is how governments prepare for such an event. Richard Sylves has long studied emergency management and the politics of disaster. Here he discusses how effective government can help minimize the toll. A professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, Sylves is author of “Disaster Policy and Politics: Emergency Management and Homeland Security.”


By Richard Sylves

The recent Chilean mega-quake impelled Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet to declare a state of catastrophe. It is a great credit to the government and people of Chile that both have for many years conscientiously and dynamically undertaken earthquake mitigation. Chile’s 1960 great quake, even more powerful than this one, dramatically raised earthquake awareness among Chile’s people. Chile’s latest quake is a very major disaster, but arguably something less than a catastrophe when compared to Haiti’s earthquake catastrophe.

When television news viewers around the world observe damage to Chile’s buildings and highways, I ask them to marvel at the great many structures they see still standing and with only modest damage. Structures that could ride out 9.0 Modified Mercalli Scale seismic forces without complete structural failure or total collapse should be considered nearly as durable as The Pyramids of Egypt. Since 1985, when a powerful quake struck Valparaiso, Chilean earthquake building code regulation and enforcement have evolved as a model for all nations.

What we have here is a classic case in which government regulation informed by the seismic building sciences and earnestly enforced saved the lives of tens of thousands, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands.

Sadly, fatalities in this event will undoubtedly continue to mount, yet the ultimate total will almost certainly be a fraction of the estimated 200,000-plus lost in the Haiti quake of early February. News reports claim that 1.5 million Chileans have been affected by the temblor. However, rebuilding Chile will involve reconstituting a previously functioning public and private infrastructure and national economy; whereas rebuilding Haiti will involve creating a public infrastructure and establishing a viable national economy, neither of which can be said to have existed before the Haitian quake.

Some may argue that Haiti’s great population size and density combined with the misfortune of a quake epicenter located near that nation’s largest city, account for the deadliness of its seismic event. In my judgment, Haiti’s grinding poverty and inadequate governance led to an abject state of earthquake mitigation and preparedness. This compounded the disaster for too many Haitians and has helped produce a long-term, tragic complex humanitarian emergency, something most Chileans will most likely escape.

Many nations routinely send disaster assistance to countries in need, and they often do so with the help of their respective ambassadors and in-country missions. But few Americans know or appreciate that U.S. ambassadors can declare disasters in the nations to which they are posted. A U.S. ambassador’s declaration immediately commits up to $50,000 and mobilizes, subject to a president’s okay, an elaborate system of humanitarian emergency response and bilateral assistance. They do this compassionately on behalf of the American government and its people. I know of no other nation whose ambassadors hold such authority.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  February 28, 2010; 8:28 AM ET
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All you have to do is compare the experience of the affected population in events like Loma Prieta, or Northridge, to that in Chile, Haiti, China, Armenia, Italy.

Buildings can be engineered to be mostly earthquake resistant, or not.

Water systems, and back-up water systems can be prepared to deal with the fires that follow quakes, or not.

Emergency preparedness teams can be trained to deal with earthquakes and other natural disasters, or not.

Communication systems can have contingency plans in place for disasters, or not.

All of this planning and preparation that saves future lives, creates jobs today.

Posted by: nmrn | March 1, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

I believe that the previous very large earthquake in Chile was in 1965, not 1985. Having been in Chile for several months after the earlier quake, I can only agree with Professor Slyves on the substantial advances made by Chile since that time in preparing for another massive quake.

Posted by: Geographer | March 1, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

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