Saturday, 27 February 2010

Life Lessons from the Earthquakes in Chile and Haiti

We're just two months into the New Year but we've already had several natural disasters including earthquakes in Haiti and now Chile. People will read all sorts of things into this state of affairs but I chose to accept these occurrences, despite how devastating they may seem to be, for what they are - natural disasters. And, I expect that, over the coming months, there will be many more and not because I'm a pessimist but because that's life.

There will be more lives lost, property destroyed and infrastructures disabled. I know it's heartbreaking to lose someone especially when it happens suddenly. And while it may initially feel devastating to lose your home and other material possessions these, at least, are things that can eventually be replaced.

The fact is that the earth's population is growing and so more and more people are living in areas which are prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and the like. Nature isn't being vengeful in any way. It just is. The occurrence of these events means that more people will be adversely affected. However, the extent to which we are affected by these events, to a large extent, is up to us.

And upon contemplation of recent events I saw several life lessons - lesson that we can apply to our personal lives to improve the quality of our lives.

The earthquakes occurring in Haiti and Chile make an interesting study. The magnitude of the Chilean Earthquake was 8.8 compared to 7.0 for the Earthquake in Haiti. The former was over 500 times more powerful than the latter. There were differences in the depth of the earthquake - the earthquake that affected Chile occurred at a depth of 21.7 miles whereas the one in Haiti was much closer to the surface at just 8.1 miles. And there were other differences as well such as geology and population density.

Still, the key factor that influenced the extent of the devastation in the respective countries was the quality of the buildings. This is something that many researchers have recognised including Colin Stark, Geomorphologist and Researcher at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who said:

"The thing ultimately that decides how much damage there will be and how many people die is the quality of the buildings."

In Chile it is estimated that about 300 people have died. In Haiti more than 230,000 people have died and it is estimated that the death toll could reach 300,000, in other words 1,000 times that of Chile.

Chile is a wealthier country than Haiti. The nation's average annual income is $11,000 compared to $1,900 in Haiti but the state of affairs here is not just a matter of relative wealth. Chile has learnt from it experience of other earthquakes and has been rigorous in enforcing strict building codes. New buildings have to incorporate earthquake proofing so that they are strong and yet flexible and so sway and bend during temblors instead of breaking.

In contrast, the construction of buildings in Haiti is often a slap-dash affair. They are often built on a poor foundation with little reinforcements and the construction is such that the buildings are not even designed to withstand the test of time far less the force of an earthquake. And, unfortunately, corruption is such that building inspectors are bribed.

This speaks volumes not just about how we should build and how we should develop a country's infrastructure; it also provides a clear warning regarding how we should construct our lives and some important life lessons.

The extent to which we are affected by natural disasters or other crises depends upon several factors including:

~ Understanding and Paying Attention to Warning Signs
In life there are early warning signs when things are not going well and you have to know what the warning signs are. But it's not enough to know what the warning signs are and to be able to interpret them you have to take action - the right action.

Chile and Haiti both sit on top of large, volatile fault lines and so have been experienced several earthquakes. Chile decided to implement building codes that would make its buildings more earthquake proof. Haiti decided to play Russian roulette and paid the price.

~ How Well You React Under Pressure
President Michelle Bachelet demonstrated her leadership skills. She was quick to quick to address and reassure Chileans and visit devastated areas. She has been quick to help reassure her people about the Government's ability to respond to the destruction caused by the earthquake.

"The system is functioning. People should remain calm. We're doing everything we can with all the forces we have."
President Michelle Bachelet

Similarly, if you experience a crisis it's important to remain calm. You cannot think clearly when you are panicky. And when taking action, your effectiveness is diminished as well if you panic.

~ Knowing What to Do in Times of Crisis
One way to act calmly when experiencing a crisis is to know what to do and so you need a plan of action. While you don't want to live a life where you are always expecting the worst to happen it's important to know what to do in case of an emergency. Having an action plan can actually help you to remain calm because you don't have to think as much. You can immediately swing into action.

When it comes to responding to events such as earthquakes timing is critical when it comes to saving lives. And lives may be at stake when it comes to some of the situations you may have to deal with so learn what to do when it comes to dealing with certain crisis so that you can act in a timely and appropriate manner.

~ Having Flexible Plans in Place
In the event of a crisis it's often not enough to have just one action plan. Like earthquake-proof buildings you need to be flexible because things often don't unfold as you envisage them.

And one way to be flexible is to expand your skills set and or the resources that you can tap into in times of need. So examine the skills and resources that would be helpful should a crisis occur and see how best you can acquire those skills.

~ Having a Strong Foundation
One of the reasons why so many of the buildings in Haiti were completely flattened was because they didn't have a strong foundation. Therefore, it's important to examine your foundation and notice where there are weaknesses.

In some instances, you may simply need to fortify, whereas in other instances you may have to figuratively tear down structures and start rebuild. It might take a while and it might not be very exciting at first but what you will be able to construct as a result of having a strong foundation will be far superior and longer lasting to anything you construct without that foundation.

But, in taking all of this into account there's an important thing to bear in mind here. You don't want to focus on disaster preparedness or saving for that rainy day. As I've said before, bad things will happen but you don't want to live your life always expecting the worst to happen.

Think instead, that you're preparing yourself to live your best life, regardless of the circumstances that might befall you. And think instead of preparing yourself to take advantage of opportunities that might arise as a result of what might otherwise be seen as negative situations.

When you take this approach you'll find that you'll live more expansively. You'll also be more ready to fully embrace life and appreciate the miracle of not just life itself but of being alive because natural disasters have a way of reminding you just how fragile life can be and as Thich Nhat Hanh said in an interview with Oprah:

"Many people are alive but don't touch the miracle of being alive."

And then should disaster befall you, instead of crumpling in heap, you'll simply find a different way to stand.

Poverty Predicts Quake Damage Better Than Richter Scale
Chile Quake One of Strongest on Record

Chile and Haiti: A Tale of Two Earthquakes


  1. This is such a fantastic post about these recent disasters in Haiti and Chile. Such an important reminder to build a good foundation in all areas of life, and then focus on living fully every single moment. Thank you!!

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Allison. I look forward to sharing your special message later this week.

  3. Thank you . These are excellent suggestions.

    Many were implemented during Loma Prieta simply as the next right thing to do. My block is blessed with a doctor and several engineers and everyone is grateful for them.