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Haiti: Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Foretold

by Tom Lewis (editor), , January 13, 2010

Credit: Public Domain
San Francisco burning, after the earthquake of 1908. The sequel, as powerful as the quake that struck Haiti, is coming soon.

This is what we know for certain: the geological horror that struck Haiti yesterday is coming soon to a state near you: specifically, California. Only it will be even worse.

If we were rational people, the evacuation of California would begin today. The destruction of Haiti by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake is not only an immense catastrophe, of Biblical proportions, for that accursed country, but is also a prophecy for California. Earthquakes do not strike only the poor. Nor are they always a surprise.

Along geological fault lines, where tectonic plates -- huge chunks of the earth's crust, floating like enormous icebergs on the molten magma of the earths interior -- grind past or into each other, the accumulation of strain and its release as earthquakes is a pretty regular process because the velocity of the plates does not change much. In California, the Pacific Ocean plate and the North American plate move past each other along the San Andreas Fault at 2.9 inches per year. Thus the best indicator yet discovered of when an earthquake will strike in the future is the frequency with which earthquakes have struck in that particular spot in the past. Along the Southern San Andreas, from Baja California northward to a point roughly midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the geologic record shows major earthquakes, of about magnitude 8, occurring with metronomic regularity every 150 years. The last one occurred in 1857. Do the math.

Two points about scale here: a magnitude 8 earthquake is not a little bit larger than a magnitude 7, it is ten times more powerful. And an estimate in geologic time is not going to be accurate to the hour. If I told you I'd do something in 15 minutes, and did so in 10 or in 20 minutes, you would not accuse me of inaccuracy. The fact that the LA earthquake is three years late is not significant.

In northern California, around San Francisco, the frequency of the big ones along the San Andreas is not known. The last time the city was destroyed by one was 1908, when the fault snapped along 270 miles of its length, displacing its two sides by as much as 16 feet. The tributary Hayward Fault has produced magnitude 7 quakes every 140 years, the last one having occurred in 1868. And the Hayward fault runs directly under San Francisco (the football stadium at the University of California/Berkeley straddles the fault, its two halves built separately so they can slide past each other if necessary). In 1908 the lateral movement of the plates snapped the water lines coming into the city, leaving the residents no way to fight the multiple fires, some fed by ruptured gas mains, that consumed it.

Exactly the same thing would happen today: the Hetch Hetchy aqueduct, carrying water for 2.4 million people, crosses the Hayward Fault. Official estimates of the consequences of a quake the size of the 1908 event include 5,800 people dead, 220,000 homeless, virtually all the bridges and freeways in the area destroyed and the Port of Oakland out of business for a very long time. The Port is the fourth busiest container port in the United States.

A magnitude 7 earthquake near Los Angeles will be much worse. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that up to 18,000 people would die, every freeway and most railways and gas lines in the city would be destroyed, and damages would total something over $250 billion. That is ten times the death toll, and three times the damages, of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to strike America. And it would be far worse than Katrina in many more ways:

  • There will be no notice, no evacuation, no boarding up of windows or shopping for supplies. Everything will be normal one minute and destroyed the next.
  • More than half of the losses incurred in Katrina were insured; in the San Francisco Bay area only about 8% of homes and businesses are insured for earthquake damage.
  • According to a USGS study, less than 10% of people living on and near the San Andreas have made a plan for surviving the next big earthquake, and less than half have set aside some provisions such as water, batteries, or first aid kits.
  • When Katrina came ashore, it made a choice, and by choosing New Orleans spared, say, Galveston. But the earthquake that strikes Los Angeles will in no way reduce the peril to San Francisco.

Let us be clear: this is not something that might happen, these earthquakes are going to happen. The scientific consensus on this is far older, and more complete, than that on global climate change. Journalists who occasionally do a story on the impending earthquakes do not feel it necessary, in order to appear fair and balanced, to scour the warrens of academe to find someone who denies it all. And yes, geologists have long predicted that Haiti, which sits astride the boundary of the North American and Caribbean plates, was due for a magnitude 7.2 quake.

It is not only the water and gas lines going into L.A. or San Francisco that will snap in the Big One; the supply lines for everyone living west of the Mississippi River run in large part through the ports of Los Angeles, Oakland and Long Beach. For the reasons discussed in Chapters One and Five, a substantial interruption of oil and food supplies to a major chunk of the country may not be repairable. The combination of burdens – treating the casualties, housing and feeding the refugees, putting out the fires, repairing the infrastructure -- while the larger economy freezes up ever farther to the east for lack of essential supplies, could bring down the entire shaky edifice of our industrial world.

Pray for Haiti. Help Haiti. And then reflect: who will help us, on the day we confront Haiti's fate?

About the Writer

Tom Lewis is an editor for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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10 comments on Haiti: Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Foretold

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By Lady D on January 13, 2010 at 10:22 am

Don't fool with Mother Nature!!! It will not be pretty. Well maybe it is exactly what we need to wake up and start treating nature and ourselves better.

Will this be the begining of a Quantum Leap. Energy never dies it just changes form.

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By Theresa H Hall on January 13, 2010 at 03:42 pm


This is a beautifully written piece. My sister and her family lived for many years, in Hollister, CA. It is five miles from the San Andreas Fault, and their newspaper reported all of the daily seismic activity.

Here is a link for a call-to-arms over at BlogCatalog, who is in partnership with BrooWaha.

We are working toward many bloggers writing and helping these people. I will link your article there so BC'ers can read it.

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By Cal Godot on January 14, 2010 at 11:43 am

Do the majority of Americans tremble in constant fear? The opening line about evacuating the entire state of California comes off as both alarmist and absurd. The begin with, the entirety of the state is not at extreme risk. Most of the instability lies north of Los Angeles, though as such a major population center LA is of great concern with regard to damage from *any* quake above about 4.5 or so. As such, both the city and state have engaged in *extensive* planning, none of which you appear to have even bothered to investigate.

You're also wrong about the scale: the moment magnitude scale (the Richter scale is no longer used) is logorithmic, which means the difference between and 6 and a 7 is about 31, not 10. Your notion that a large earthquake occurs "with metronomic regularity every 150 years" is not only inaccurate, it is also not taken seriously as a prediction model even among those who deign to predict earthquakes. Such a simplictic prediction model fails to take into account the history of interconnected faults and other geological activity. You end your fact-challenged and scientifically false article by making it clear it's merely an uinformed fear-cry: "Who will help us?" We'll help ourselves, and the best way to begin doing that is NOT with irrational, unscientific, fear-laden screeds, but with preparation, planning, and education.

I appreciate the intent of the author, but "citizen journalism" is no good if it's even more careless with facts and accuracy (not to mention fileld with fear and hysteria) than "professional journalism."

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By Jack Bates on January 14, 2010 at 11:55 am

There are fault lines everywhere. I grew up in Ohio and there were fault lines in Ohio. One quake hit and tore apart the roof on our cafeteria. The school district didn't have earthquake insurance, even though it was only a couple hundred dollars a year for the whole district, because they felt secure being in the middle of the US.

The solution isn't eveacuation but better construction and the realization that the ground below us on our planet is not solid. As you mention in your article, the Earth's crust just floats, colides, and eventually there is a quake. Such is life.

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By Tom Lewis on January 14, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Cal: Referring to the opening line about evacuating California, I'm sorry to have terrified you, but really, can you spell "irony?"

"Most of the instability lies north of Los Angeles?" Really. Remarkable statement when the San Andreas runs the entire length of the state, with subsidiary faults honeycombing miles on either side. One of them, the Hayward fault in San Francisco, has a similar frequency of slightly smaller (magnitude 7, as in Haiti) quakes, does that make it less unstable? I don't get the distinction.

As to the extensive planning by state and local governments: I'm sure the plans will be a comfort to you when the big one hits. Their plans were the sources for the casualty predictions I cited.

Yes, I know, Mr. Richter's scale is not much used any more, we use scales that are virtually identical in design, use and results, another distinction without a difference. As to the difference between a magnitude 6 and magnitude 7, in the language of the USGS: "Because of the logarithmic basis of the scale, each whole number increase in magnitude represents a tenfold increase in measured amplitude; as an estimate of energy, each whole number step in the magnitude scale corresponds to the release of about 31 times more energy than the amount associated with the preceding whole number value." So we are both right. Again, a distinction without a difference.

Did you notice that my use of the word metronomic was followed by a brief cautionary word about geologic time spans and the comparatively wide margins of error involved? Past frequency is virtually the only basis for predicting earthquakes, despite the fond hopes of technology worshipers.

As to our not needing any help in the event of the big one, you are entirely correct, we don't need anyone's help to deal with disaster. I had forgotten entirely the example of Katrina.

I'm happy to discuss my sources and conclusions with anybody, Cal, it's not necessary to kick in the door and brandish a riot gun.

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By Tom Lewis on January 14, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Jack: It's not quite true that there are faults everywhere. Earthquake and volcanic activity are concentrated along the boundaries of the tectonic plates, and they are the major fault lines of the world. Haiti is on the boundary of the Caribbean and North American plates; California on that of the North American and Pacific plates. Earthquakes in Ohio (and places like New Madrid, Missouri) are far less frequent, and usually weaker, than plate-boundary quakes. (Although the New Madrid quake of 1811 was an 8, if I recall correctly) The so-called intra-plate quakes are much harder to understand and predict than their more violent brethren. Hence to low level of worry in Ohio.

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By TonyBerkman on January 16, 2010 at 11:32 am

Tom it's always been a matter of when. The more pressing question is what do we as humans do now.

It’s so easy for humans to dismiss and justify why we shouldn’t or can’t help when a tragic event takes place in other areas of the world or even in neighborhoods that aren’t “our own”.

What goes through our heads to do this? Our ability to justify is miraculous - on some weird level. If there is one thing we are all experts at its the ability to justify why something is true when we know deep down it is not.

Many of us have become so good at justification that we don’t even notice that little voice saying, “you know you’re telling yourself nonsense.”

What’s your way of justifying not helping a fellow human out? “Oh, well I don’t help out when other tragedies occur, why should I help this time?” “I have my own problems to deal with and I don’t even know who these people are?” ”The government and non profits will help and I really don’t have the money or time to do something?” ”Because my kid is sick, my dog got run over and I’m behind on my car payment.” Some people will even justify why not to help based based on a religious story.

What is the story you tell yourself about why you shouldn’t help out? Do you tell yourself, it’s not my problem?

The fact is it is your problem. It is my problem. It is the world’s problem. The people of Haiti haven’t had it good even in the best of times. A poor nation. Plenty of hunger. Plenty of health problems. They, like any of us, could be struck by a tragedy not brought on by anything we did wrong.

The people of the world and especially the people of the US need to step up and take responsibility. That includes you. If you make $30,000 a year or more you are in the top 1/10th of 1% of the world’s wealthiest people. Did you know this?

You have it good compared to over 99.9% of the world. Yet we have the nerve to complain about how bad the U.S. economy is. Have you seen Haiti? Have you watched the news?

Or is it easier to turn a blind eye and pretend this doesn’t affect you? It does affect you because turning away affects you. It affects what you feel and think about yourself.

Now is a time to give whatever you can. Do what you can to help a helpless people. As you read these words another person there lost his or her life. A child. A mother. A brother. A sister. A father. A son. A daughter.

What would you want the world to do for you, if this happened where you live? Is it so far out of the realm of possibilities that an event like this could happen right where you are, this moment?

Do what you can. Give what you can. If you’re a blogger, write a post. Raise money on your blog using the widgets you can find on If you have physical strength and the freedom to travel, then go help. If you can’t move, and don’t have enough money to eat, then pray. If you can’t pray because you don’t believe it does anything, then send food or donate money to an organization like Doctors without Borders - who can make a direct difference. Just do something that makes a contribution.

Do something to help. Do anything.

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By ranfuchs on January 24, 2010 at 02:12 pm

We move only when there is no more choice. We change direction only when we are absolutely forced to, and we hope that tomorrow will not be worse. Evolution did not build us to plan ahead, only to respond to the foreseeable.

Unfortunatley, like the way we handled the upcoming financial crisis, the nearly unavoidable rise of sea level, we will not do anything until the first turmoil is felt.

What we need to ensure that we have a good way to handle it then. Evacuation procedures, health facilities. But as we have just seen from Haiti, as we saw from New Orleans, even this is unlikely. When the turmoil hits, we will figure out how to handle it.

No worries, she'll be fine mate

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By TDWilson on January 05, 2011 at 10:36 am

I predict it will happen in 2012. Oh, if Mother Earth had a sense of humor. Why do I feel like making jokes about this? I actually felt some real fear when I read this article. Seems a little unreal that we have not yet come up with some sort of thermostat for measuring when something like this will happen. Maybe it wouldn't matter if we did.

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By joka100 on July 17, 2011 at 02:04 pm

This was indeed a great tragedy, even for me personally. I lost one of my sons in it

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