Frank J. Pazzaglia is a professor of geology and chair of Lehigh’s department of earth and environmental science. He is also the director of the Lehigh University Field Camp, a selective program that offers earth scientists an opportunity at intensive field training and discovery in the Rocky Mountains.
The recent humanitarian crisis in Haiti directly followed from a M 7.0 earthquake that struck close to the largest and most densely populated city in the impoverished nation. Billions of dollars will correctly be funneled to Haiti to support relief efforts and reduce immediate human suffering. Billions more will follow to rebuild the cities and infrastructure. Almost certain to be lost in this effort will be respect for the fact that Haiti sits astride an active plate boundary capable of occasionally generating large earthquakes, and frequently generating smaller, but still strong earthquakes capable of causing loss of property and lives.
The Haitian people and leadership are not deaf to this message as they were alerted to the danger for two years leading up to the recent earthquake. It is just that in such an impoverished setting retrofitting buildings to survive severe ground accelerations cannot take priority over keeping everyone fed and in some kind of shelter. This problem is not unique to impoverished nations as we in the US still grapple with the reality of trying to rebuild and protect a city that experiences frequent hurricanes, and for which portions lie greater than 10 feet below sea level. New Orleans and Port-au-Prince are a reminder to all of us that protection from natural disasters does not flow directly from the amount of financial resources we throw at the problem, but rather from an understanding of the natural setting and the willingness to work with, rather than against the environment.
The immediate effects of the Haitian earthquake are visible for everyone to see. The distal effects are yet to come when the rainy season begins and soil and rock jarred loose on long-denuded hillslopes rushes into lowland cities as devastating mudflows and rendering the countryside even more inhabitable. We can all learn a lesson in the benefits of environmental stewardship and respect from the Dominican Republic that shares the same tectonically active and hurricane-prone island with Haiti. Simple measures long instituted there have helped mitigate the loss of lives and property associated with natural disasters by not clear-cutting forests, following more mindful construction protocols, and mandating sustainable agricultural practices that do not force people to abandon the countryside and flee to overcrowd cities. Will the relief effort now flowing to Haiti come with these protocols in mind? If not, what are the consequences? Who is responsible for deciding?