The recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile have caused Costa Ricans to reflect. Is Costa Rica prepared for a large-scale earthquake? In bars, patrons still talk about each disaster as though it were yesterday. As news of aftershocks in both Haiti and Chile appears on local broadcast stations, they recall the Jan. 8 earthquake that struck their own country in Cinchona just over a year ago, with aftershocks that lasted for six months after the original 6.2 rumble.
Tremors are feelings Costa Ricans know all too well.
“Pobrecitos,” said Costa Rican Mayra Castillo one recent Friday night in a smoky, dimly lit dive bar in San Pedro as she watched a group of Chileans run in fear after a 7.0 magnitude aftershock struck near the epicenter of February’s 8.8 earthquake. “It’s horrible. And our country trembles a lot. Just think if we had an earthquake that big in Costa Rica.”
Experts agree that the precise location and time of earthquakes cannot be predicted. They admit that no city, community or country can adequately prepare itself to prevent all the damages that the phenomenon can cause. But metropolises built on seismic grounds can minimize the impact when a quake occurs.
In Costa Rica, construction standards are more stringent than are those in Haiti and its citizens’ seismic awareness is much greater.
So just how well equipped is Costa Rica to face a 7.0 or 8.0 magnitude earthquake? The answer is surprisingly obvious: The country is better off than Haiti, but it still has a ways to go.
“We are halfway between Haiti and Chile in preparedness,” said National Emergency Commission (CNE) press officer Reynaldo Carballo, who visited Haiti shortly after a 7.0 earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation in early January. “There, it was like an atomic bomb went off. The entire city collapsed. That is very unlikely here. But we still aren’t as developed as is Chile.”
Several factors put Costa Rica in a position better than that of Haiti.
Like Chile, Costa Rica is equipped with a seismic construction code that defines building standards for the entire country according to an area’s seismic capability.
For example, San José buildings, in general, should not exceed 15 floors in height. But many buildings were constructed before the code was first drafted in 1974.
Olman Vargas, director of the Costa Rican Federated Association of Architects and Engineers, estimates that approximately 30 percent of the buildings in the greater metropolitan area don’t comply with the code due to their age or lack of legal building permits.
In recent years, teams of national and international builders and engineers have inspected some of the Central Valley’s oldest and most fragile buildings to restructure the edifices in order to comply with the seismic code. The 17-story Banco Nacional, the Hospital México and the Central Bank all have received makeovers.
“We started with the public buildings and put some of them through a complete restructuring process,” Vargas said. “Still, there is worry regarding many of the buildings that were built before the seismic code was written.”
Costa Rica’s greatest worry, perhaps, centers on its bridges.
According to a 2006 study by a team of researchers at the University of Costa Rica, half of the 98 bridges that the group inspected in southern San José would collapse in the event of a strong tectonic movement.
“It’s one of our weakest points,” Vargas said. “They might have been built well at the time, but a lot of the bridges in the country haven’t received maintenance for many years.”
Shortly after the Haiti earthquake, the Federated Association of Architects and the CNE sent several engineers and emergency specialists to the damaged nation, both to assist in recovery efforts and to take notes.
While most of the buildings and homes in Haiti’s capital city of Port-Au-Prince tumbled, the teams noticed that the country’s highways and bridges were in surprisingly good shape.
Upon further research, the groups discovered that many of the highways and bridges in Haiti were built around the turn of the 21st century by European and North American companies with higher construction standards. The infrastructure also had received adequate maintenance in the intervening years, according to Vargas.
“This goes to show that when things are done right and are built well, they can withstand an earthquake,” Vargas said.
A similar team of experts is currently in Chile to help in aid missions, examine the country’s infrastructure and bring intelligence back to Costa Rica’s seismic planners.
Where Could the Next “Big One” Strike?
Costa Rica’s seismic record is approximately 400 years old. And, while 400 years may seem like a long time in a country where modern settlement began around 450 years ago, it is a mere crack in the corner of the planet’s four-and-a-half-billion-year window.
“That’s one of the problems we face,” said Víctor González, a seismologist at the Vulcanological and Seismological Observatory of Costa Rica (OVSICORI). “This time frame is very short. We can’t say, based on this record, that in certain zones we are going to have an earthquake every 50 years or every 100 years.”
But scientists do their best to attempt to anticipate the shakes.
In Cartago, the last strong earthquake occurred in 1910, severely damaging the province. González said that OVSICORI estimates that a strong seismic movement will impact Cartago every 75 years.
He said that perhaps among the greatest concerns is northwestern Costa Rica’s NicoyaPeninsula, along the Middle America Trench, where the Cocos Plate passes. González and his colleagues believe that an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude or higher is inevitable in this area, but they aren’t sure when it might occur.
Seismologists estimate that a strong earthquake will strike the NicoyaPeninsula every 50 years. The last major earthquake in that area was in 1950.
“It has been 60 years since the last Nicoya earthquake and, in May, we will reach 100 years since the Cartago earthquake,” González said. “Unfortunately, our record for recurrence periods is small. We work very seriously on this, but there is really no way to say when or where the next one will be.”
Will the Response Be Adequate?
Unlike Haiti and Chile, Costa Rica cannot depend on a military to keep the peace and cart supplies should a disaster provoke chaos.
Rather, CNE has elaborated the National Risk Management Plan, which it announced in January. Under the plan, each of the country’s 81 cantons has named a local emergency committee of hospital workers, fire fighters, policemen, Red Cross officials and representatives of the Health Ministry and the telecommunications institute to prepare communities for emergencies and organize evacuations and aid responses.
In the NicoyaPeninsula, citizens formed a local emergency committee in October 2009 after attending a seminar on earthquakes at the NationalUniversity in Heredia, north of San José. Committee leaders in San Miguel, a small town in the NicoyaPeninsula, went door-to-door last November to pass out flyers to their neighbors and explain what to do should an earthquake strike.
The committee assigned tasks to certain families and searched for adequate buildings to serve as emergency shelters.
“Our country requires a lot of preparation to face a large earthquake,” said González. “We have been working towards this, but there is still a lot lacking.”