A study in contrasts: Lessons of natural disasters in Chile and Haiti

Chile's quality of the government and the relative wealth of its citizens means it was much better off after its earthquake than Haiti.

Natacha Pisarenk/AP Photo
People walk through a damaged neighborhood in Talcahuano, Chile, March 1. Though Chile's central coast was hit with an 8.8-magnitude earthquake early Saturday and damage was widespread, it fared much better than Haiti in January's quake.

The horrible destruction that has taken place in Chile and Haiti offers a fascinating contrast. Haiti was hit with a 7.0 richter scale earthquake and roughly 230,000 people died in January 2010.

Chile was hit with a 8.8 richter scale earthquake and as of now roughly 1000 people are reported dead. The richter scale is a base 10 log scale --- so the shaking amplitude of the Chile quake was almost 100 times larger than the Haiti quake.

How could a much worse quake cause much less death? One answer is simply luck that the Haitian quake struck a major population center. But, we know that Chile's city of Concepcion was close to the epicenter.

My favorite explanation is discussed in My 2005 paper on deaths from disasters . Using data for nations all over the world, I documented the benefits of economic development. Richer nations suffer fewer deaths from the "same quality" shock.

Now, the open question is "why"?

Explanation #1: The Quality of Government

Richer governments can enforce building codes and quality building codes protect the public.

Explanation #2: Richer people

Richer people live in newer, higher quality structures and this protects them. The structures are built of higher quality (no collapsing cement).

Richer people often live at lower density (outside of a Manhattan or a Tokyo) and this reduces risk.

There is a synergy between #1 and #2.

Richer nations tend to have a more educated populace. The educated are better able to monitor their politicians and this provides an incentive for self interested politicians to actually act in the public's interest.

The role of the media in "policing" politicians remains an active question in modern economics. Researchers at the London School of Economics have done some of the best research on this topic.

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