San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Could it Happen Again? The Answer’s Shaky

One hundred years after an earthquake toppled Cartago, geologists continue to learn from the deadliest natural disaster in Costa Rican history.

Mauricio Mora, seismologist and volcanologist at the University of Costa Rica’s school of geology, said the key lesson focuses on preparation.

Predicting earthquakes has improved through the decades, due to studies on plate tectonics and awareness of past seismic activity along fault lines. Still, it’s nearly impossible to prevent heavy damage to a city without correct preparation.

The past few governments at times have seemed to ignore this lesson, Mora said.

“We see all this kind of trouble,” Mora said. “Where are all these lessons from 1910 now? That government learned about this stuff but the present governments – we don’t know the extent that they care about all those lessons.”

Mora used the example of disaster relief after Cartago to demonstrate how to better prepare for an earthquake.

On May 4, 1910 the Cartago quake claimed approximately 700 lives. Costa Rica’s president at the time, Cleto González Vízquez, came to observe the damage. He learned that most deaths resulted from collapsed buildings that had weak structures built primarily from adobe and other lightweight materials.

After the earthquake, adobe was banned as a building material. And a new way of construction was adopted.

Victor González, a seismologist from the Volcanologic and Seismologist Observatory of Costa Rica at the NationalUniversity (OVSICORI-UNA), wrote in a statement that scientists have been expecting a similar earthquake to hit Cartago, since nature works in cycles.

González said Cartago now might be more susceptible to damage from an earthquake. While building materials are stronger, current infrastructure has been built on “areas not apt for urban development.”

The population in Cartago now exceeds 150,000 people. In 1910, only 5,000 people inhabited the city.

Both seismologists cited as an example the recent earthquake in Cinchona in January 2009 that wrecked the village and caused deadly landslides. Cinchona (6.2) and Cartago (6.4) both had similar magnitudes.

Mora said it will be interesting to see how the government learns from Cinchona and how it plans to make that area, and all of Costa Rica, safer.

In a country that’s prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and landslides, smart politics, good construction, and appropriate land use are crucial.

“At some point we are going to have an impact and we have to try to decrease that impact,” Mora said. “That’s the main challenge. What the government has on its hands – how we are going to expand our cities in a correct way?

“It’s not that we cannot live in Costa Rica. We can live. But we have to adapt.”

–Matt Levin

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