1 million dead in 30 seconds

The National Cathedral of Haiti was completely destroyed in the earthquake. (Carolyn Cole/Tribune newspapers)


Seismic risk mitigation is the greatest urban policy challenge that the world confronts today. If you consider that too strong a claim, try to imagine another way in which bad urban policy could kill 1 million people in 30 seconds. Yet the politics of earthquakesare rarely discussed, and when discussed, widely misunderstood. Take the Great EastJapan Earthquake on March 11, which released 600 million times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb. The ensuing partial meltdown of the Fukushima reactor prompted international hysteria about nuclear power, but few seemed to realize that a far deadlier threat had been averted. As seismologist Roger Bilham has aptly put it, houses in seismically active zones are the world's unrecognized weapons of mass destruction — and Japan's WMDs didn't go off. Its buildings — at least those that weren't swept away by the accompanying tsunami, a force of nature against which we are still largely helpless — remained standing, and the people inside survived.

That so few buildings collapsed in the earthquake was a human triumph of the first order. It showed that countries can make great progress in seismic risk mitigation; in the Kobe earthquake of 1995, 200,000 buildings collapsed. But cities around the world seem happy to ignore the earthquake threat — one that is only growing as the cities themselves get bigger and bigger.

And the odds are …

In January 2010, an earthquake struck Haiti and destroyed nearly 100,000 buildings. Hospitals, schools, government buildings, jails, hotels, churches, whole neighborhoods — all crumbled, entombing everyone inside. After the quake, I received an email from a scholar of international relations. "It's odd that earthquakes tend to occur frequently in countries that can least afford them," she wrote.