Chile, Haiti, and “Govinda’s Bridge” March 4, 2010Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Andes, Buddhist concepts, Chile, disasters, earth community, earth cycles, earthquakes, environmental justice, geology, Haiti.
This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.
When I turned as part of my daily practice to today’s page of Offerings, a compilation of Buddhist quotations, I read a comment by Lama Anagarika Govinda that registered as particularly meaningful in light of the recent earthquake in Chile:
“A bridge is revealed which connects the everyday world of sense perceptions to the realm of timeless knowledge.”
Oddly enough, given the topic of collapsed infrastructure as a result of recent high magnitude earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, a visible viaduct has emerged which connects the agonizing reality of these events to the timeless truth that economically and educationally impoverished people are disproportionately vulnerable to risks posed by life on a dynamic planet.
How is it that these two seismic events in the first quarter of 2010 have together exposed Govinda’s bridge?
In order to answer that question we must compare geologically these natural events. Both earthquakes occurred at lithospheric plate boundaries. Geologists have come to expect earthquakes at these locations because such boundaries, which are delineated by earthquakes and often volcanism, are the relatively flexible seams that connect pieces of comparatively inflexible crust comprising the skin of the earth. When rigid crust moves, it releases energy stored in the rocks causing them to break abruptly. This is a fundamental geological reality that all human beings must understand, as a starting point, if we are to lessen the catastrophic human consequences that follow from such natural events. Both temblors were massive — Chile magnitude 8.8 , Haiti 7.0. In fact, the Chilean event ranks among the largest quakes ever measured.
A substantial geological difference between the Chile and Haiti tremors was that the former originated deep in the Earth’s crust, 35 km, while the latter one had a shallow focus, 13 km. The difference in the depth of the rupture relates to the type of plate boundary at each site — sideways sliding in Haiti versus downward thrust in Chile. And though to the geologically uninitiated the difference between 8.8 and 7.0 may seem negligible, the Richter scale is logarithmic, not linear, and that means that the Chilean quake was substantially stronger than the Haitian one. These geological details beg the human question, why do the numbers of Haitian deaths and catastrophic injuries eclipse Chilean ones?
The answer to the question has socioeconomic, rather than geologic roots. An adage well known to geologists reads, “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.” Many Chileans were spared crush-injuries and death because Chile constructed quake-resistant buildings after experiencing a 9.5 magnitude earthquake in 1960. In this recent event, buildings shook but did not collapse into stacks of flattened concrete, minimizing the chance that Chileans might be killed or trapped inside them. Too, the Chilean quake struck near Concepcion, a region of much lower population than Port-au-Prince.
We can build earthquake-resistant structures with adequate know-how and financial resources. Concrete, a common and relatively strong masonry material consists of cement — primarily heated limestone that is finely ground and mixed with the mineral gypsum—that binds together sand and gravel. But concrete doesn’t stretch or extend very well when stressed by shearing horizontal forces. It can be reinforced with steel bars or pre-stressed for use as an earthquake-resistant building material. Other elements of an earthquake resistant building include a good-quality foundation and high quality cement.
Living on land prone to shift, Chileans endure constant reminders of the need to utilize high quality building materials and enforce strict building regulations. Haitians also receive portentous jolts. But Chile, not Haiti, is one of the most earthquake-ready countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Why are buildings in Chile more stable than those in Haiti? While 98% of Chileans are literate and 18% of the population lives in poverty, the respective numbers for Haiti are 53% and 80%. These numbers may explain why Haitians have used brittle steel without ribbing and poor quality cement to hold together concrete. And using cement too sparingly for mortar between concrete blocks or in the production of the concrete itself reduces the earthquake resistance of the structure built with it. In Haiti inferior building materials and poor building practices have been replicated from the foundation up. As a result, the Haitian earthquake left more than 200,000 people dead, nearly one million people homeless, and an indeterminate amount of pain and anguish; in Chile we may hope that the death toll will not reach four digits.
When we examine a geologic map of the world, an unfortunate reality becomes clear: the earth’s most populous cities exist along plate boundaries. Plate boundaries coincide with shorelines and sources of water hence our earliest civilizations arose there and grew to be villages and towns. Today large population centers in places like Tehran and Istanbul are disasters waiting to happen. Though geologists cannot predict when an earthquake will occur, we can forecast, in decades-wide windows, the inevitability of such events. Haphazardly constructed communities in vulnerable mega-cities put millions of people at risk for the suffering that ensues after a large earthquake in a poorly prepared region. The Buddha taught that suffering is endless yet one must vow to end it. Anyone who subscribes to this principle must reject as unacceptable the disproportionate vulnerability of the poor and under-educated to the earth’s perpetual processes.
Edwidge Danticat on Haiti Earthquake Devastation January 29, 2010Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Haiti.
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In Brother, I’m Dying, writer Edwidge Danticat retold the heartbreaking story of her Uncle Joseph’s detention and death, and his son Maxo’s attempt to save him. Danticat has a piece in the Comment section of this week’s New Yorker, “A Little While,” in which she pays tribute to her cousin Maxo who died after being crushed beneath a building that fell during the Port-au-Prince earthquake.
In my first post after the Haitian earthquake, I asked the question “Why not me?” in regard to the issue of abrupt change. Her moving words in The New Yorker reflection speak volumes about about kindness, chance, and impermanence:
The day that Maxo’s remains were found, the call came with some degree of excitement. At least he would not rest permanently in the rubble. At least he would not go into a mass grave. Somehow, though, I sense that he would not have minded. Everyone is being robbed of rituals, he might have said, why not me?
By the time Maxo’s body was uncovered, cell phones were finally working again, bringing a flurry of desperate voices. One cousin had an open gash in her head that was still bleeding. Another had a broken back and had gone to three field hospitals trying to get it X-rayed. Another was sleeping outside her house and was terribly thirsty. One child had been so traumatized that she lost her voice. An in-law had no blood-pressure medicine. Most had not eaten for days. There were friends and family members whose entire towns had been destroyed, and dozens from whom we have had no word at all.
Everyone sounded eerily calm on the phone. No one was screaming. No one was crying. No one said “Why me?” or “We’re cursed.” Even as the aftershocks kept coming, they’d say, “The ground is shaking again,” as though this had become a normal occurrence. They inquired about family members outside Haiti: an elderly relative, a baby, my one-year-old daughter.
I cried and apologized. “I’m sorry I can’t be with you,” I said. “If not for the baby—”
My nearly six-foot-tall twenty-two-year-old cousin—the beauty queen we nicknamed Naomi Campbell—who says that she is hungry and has been sleeping in bushes with dead bodies nearby, stops me.
“Don’t cry,” she says. “That’s life.”
“No, it’s not life,” I say. “Or it should not be.”
“It is,” she insists. “That’s what it is. And life, like death, lasts only yon ti moman.” Only a little while.
Caribbean Awakening January 28, 2010Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, Buddhist concepts, disasters, earthquakes, Haiti.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.
Reports of earthquakes and tsunamis in the Caribbean region continue to shake my world in Barbados and remind me of Suzuki Roshi’s wisdom.
A 6.0 earthquake sixty miles southwest of Guatemala City shook the Guatemalan countryside and parts of El Salvador on January 18. The next day, one week after the Port-au-Prince earthquake, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake rattled the Cayman Islands. And though it was underreported, the devastating Port-au-Prince earthquake did in fact trigger a localized tsunami. It swept at least seven people to sea and drowned portions of the Haitian coastline in the village of Petit Paradis, located on the south side of the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system that ruptured to produce the January 12 magnitude 7.0 temblor. (More on this here. )
As a geologist my mind knows that the Caribbean is a tectonically active region that poses volcanic, seismic and tsunami hazards. The hazards result from the subduction of the American Plate beneath the much smaller Caribbean Plate; it generates the overlying chain of volcanic islands as well as lithospheric crustal movement along the subducting plate boundary and in the region of intense folding at the plate margin.
But aside from the volcanic activity ongoing at Soufrière Hills, Montserrat since 1995 and eruptions in 1979 from Soufrière in St. Vincent and in 1976 from La Soufrière in Guadeloupe—Soufrière means sulfur in French, hence the large number of volcanoes that bear the name — the area has been relatively quiet, volcanically speaking. And though earthquakes have caused the second and third most destructive geological disasters in the Caribbean as a whole, they occurred in 1692 — an earthquake and tsunami destroyed Port Royal in Jamaica and more than half the inhabitants died in the event itself or later of disease — and 1843 when an earthquake severely damaged Guadeloupe and nearby islands. Relatively minor earthquakes in 1761, 1823, and 1918 caused tsunamis on various islands but none resulted in devastating disaster and death. So, when I read reports warning that the “long-sleeping Caribbean” has awakened — that the ruinous quake that struck Haiti could be the first of several in the region — I experience cognitive dissonance.
I’ve come to the eastern Caribbean with my partner and our two children on a family sabbatical of sorts so that we might rest, rejuvenate, and live with ease. While so engaged the earth stirred and reminded me that, in the words of Kalu Rinpoche:
Nothing is permanent:
The sun and the moon rise and then set,
The bright, clear day is followed by the deep, dark night.
From hour to hour, everything changes.
But I’ll also take the advice uttered by Jean Frank, a Haitian fisherman in Petit Paradis making a fishing net in the shade away from the heat. Having already lived a long life, the fisherman said in Creole “Me? I’m not afraid. I’m old … I take life as it comes.”
After Haiti — Remixing the Mind & Heart January 20, 2010Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, disasters, earthquakes, geology, Haiti.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.
Recent reports from different media on the Haitian earthquake illustrate the human proclivity to separate mind and heart in response to so-called ‘natural’ disasters.
In two U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) CoreCast 10-minute audio programs, using accessible language, Michael Blanpied, USGS Earthquake Hazards Program Coordinator, discusses the January 12, 2010 Haitian earthquake. In “Magnitude 7.0 Earthquake Strikes Haiti” (episode 117), Blanpied explains the science of the earthquake and related hazards, such as landslides. In “The Haitian Earthquake-A Week Later” (episode 118), Blanpied provides an update on the current situation in Haiti and answers questions about aftershocks. Additionally, perhaps as a means to assuage fears with knowledge, an article in the Christian Science Monitor explains clearly the January 20, 6.1 magnitude aftershock (Haiti Aftershock).
Note that in the USGS CoreCast programs, Blandpied comments not at all about the suffering and human dimension of the earthquake. Therefore, because I believe that technical science talk alone will not sufficiently address the current situation, I was glad to hear host Tania Larson “Magnitude 7.0 Earthquake Strikes Haiti” (episode 117) express compassion for those who are suffering as a result of the earthquake. Blanpied’s talks are wise-minded. Larson’s concluding comments are kind-hearted.
But what will be most helpful in this and future disasters will be a remix of mind and heart that I’d like to characterize as kind-minded and wise-hearted responses. An E-Bulletin (No. 47, January 2010) from the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), whose motto is “Earth Science for the Global Community” illustrates such a blend of heart and head. Since it is not yet available on the IUGS website I quote it here:
TRAGIC EARTHQUAKE HITS HAITIAs we were going to press with this latest IUGS e-Bulletin, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, near the city of Port-au-Prince on 12 January 2010 causing immeasurable loss of life and damage to critical infrastructure. As we usher in the year 2010, we are humbly reminded that many tragedies around the world often relate to the dynamic nature of planet Earth. As Earth Scientists, we all well appreciate the need to better understand the causes of natural hazards. It is terrible and unfortunate that events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides and volcanic eruptions continue to impact such significant numbers of people around the world. Our collective efforts through geoscience education, practical field research and innovative studies can help to minimize the risks of natural hazards, reduce human vulnerability and enhance the safety of the global society. On behalf of the many geoscientists represented by the IUGS, we send our heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the many people affected by this recent catastrophe.
Haiti’s Earthquake—Why Not Me? January 13, 2010Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, earthquakes, Haiti.
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This is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.
“Awareness of impermanence is encouraged, so that when it is coupled with our appreciation of the enormous potential of our human existence, it will give us a sense of urgency that I must use every precious moment.“–The 14th Dalai Lama.
I awoke this morning from my peaceful perch in Barbados to news of a massive earthquake yesterday in Haiti on the island of Hispaniola. In the BBC report that alerted me to the event, a British Geological Survey geologist commented that the 7.0 quake, centered ten miles west of Port-au-Prince, hit a bad trifecta: large magnitude, poor country, dense population.
But that’s not really so remarkable; one need only think back to the 1988 Armenia; 1999 Izmit, Turkey; 2005 Kashmir, Pakistan; or 2009 Sichuan, China earthquakes to know that accumulated stress in the earth always finds release in geologic, if not human, time. But for those who pay attention to these types of “natural” disasters, what was more startling was the location of this earthquake.
Pakistan, Turkey, Georgia, Afghanistan, Iran, India, China. This litany of earthquake foci may unsettle but not surprise us because we know that these locations trace the arcs of great mountain ranges at the suture zones between colliding continents. Expected Caribbean “natural” disasters, on the other hand, usually center on volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and landslides. Indeed, Haiti has not experienced an earthquake of this magnitude since 1770. But in a corollary to the caution that “where there is smoke, there is fire,” to the geological savant, where there is volcanism there are earthquakes. And indeed, the collision of the Caribbean Sea and North American lithospheric plates is the agent of both these Caribbean phenomena.
Barbados, in the easternmost Caribbean, is a coral platform rather than an active volcanic center. Still, I wondered if I had felt the shaking. Depending on magnitude, lithospheric ruptures anywhere in this region could be perceived by others islanders because, to seismic energy, the Caribbean is a small place. We know that Haitians felt it horribly. And according to the BBC, their spontaneous responses have included prayer. Such responses connect Haitians to other people who have endured this kind of trauma. Like the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that inspired debate among common people as well as luminaries including Voltaire, Alexander Pope, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the subject of God’s place in the natural world and human affairs, along with concerted efforts at disaster control, the Haiti earthquake spurs entreaties for intercession and appeals for compassion.
The earthquake caused me to recall Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein’s response to the question “Why me?” spoken when extraordinary lamentable conditions arise. “Why not me?” teaches Boorstein. The earthquake in Haiti reminds me that the Earth is home to myriad creatures who are but temporary global residents; at every moment, all living beings are the Earth’s subjects. Yet social and economic circumstances cause some living beings greater vulnerability to such disasters. I’m glad that, according to my children, in Barbados study of “natural” disasters is part of the social, not natural, science curriculum. It underscores that indeed these phenomena are both social and “natural” and that our responses must include compassion, kindness and prayer as well as scientific questions and explanations.