Mérida is Shaking

Two moderate earthquakes and over 100 smaller aftershocks have kept Mérida shaking this month. It has everyone here wondering, what a Gocho Big One struck?

On Saturday November 7th at 2:28 in the morning on local time, the citizens of Mérida, Ejido, Lagunillas and Chiguará woke up to vibrating beds and the sound of rattling glass, slamming doors and earth moving as an earthquake of magnitude 5.1 shook the ground beneath them.

Damage was minor. What has been unusual, and scary, have been the more than 119 aftershocks in the following days, with reports of one person dead and some structural damages to buildings in Chiguará.

Then this last Sunday, the 22nd, at around 8:40 in the evening, another 5.1 (or 5.3 depending of the source) magnitude earthquake took place. One person died, and landslides and big cracks appeared in buildings in Ejido and Mérida. A cloud of dust rose from the mountains and there are rumours of people being relocated out of the danger zone.

Information is scant, people are scared. Scared for their lives, for their homes and their belongings.

Mérida is a seismic area, and small quakes like this always remind us a big one could be on its way. The spread of rumours doesn’t help. This was made clear in a conference given on Friday 13th by professors Martin Rengifo and Raúl Estévez about the consequences of saturday’s earthquake.

In particular, professor Estévez complains that a lot of information spread through social media are just guesses or plain old fabricated. Media reports tend to the extremes: some minimize the problem, saying that there is no risk of an earthquake of any consequence, others sensationalize the risk, announcing that we are on the verge of oblivion.

The Andes lies over the Boconó fault which makes for high seismic activity in the region. Events like the Cariaco earthquake, may and will happen eventually, just as they did in the past.

Scientists have been trying to predict the timing of earthquakes for a long, long time, without much success. The best we can do is throw out probabilities, which while accurate may not always be helpful to people trying to decide how to live with earthquake risks.

In the case of Mérida, it’s likely that an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 or above will happen in the next century… probably. However, each earthquake is an independent event, so it’s not possible to say whether that will happen tomorrow or 99 years from now.

The question isn’t if is going to happen, because it certainly will. The better question is if something can be done about it, and the even better question is if Venezuela is prepared to face a big earthquake like this in Mérida or anywhere else.

Think of the two big quakes in 2010. On January 12th we had the Haiti Earthquake of magnitude 7.0, with a death toll of about 250.000. On February 27th the Chile Earthquake of magnitude 8.8, the sixth largest ever recorded by a seismograph, took place with a death toll of about 500. Remember, Earthquake magnitude is measured on a logarithmic scale. An 8.0 quake is much stronger than a 7.0 quake. 

How on earth the Chile earthquake resulted in a death toll so low compared to Haití’s, even though it was orders of magnitude more powerful? Because Chile has a responsible, organized government and an informed and organized population.

Mérida has neither of those. The responsibility for the state is not only to tell people that they should seek cover under a table or lintel of the door, nor is about to share controversial theories of the triangle of life. It’s about enforcing proper building codes for earthquake resistant buildings that don’t collapse in the first place. It’s about setting out a reasonable plan of action that covers all the main activities to be carried out before, during and after an earthquake.

The biggest gap, in Mérida, is one that can’t be fixed overnight. We just don’t have enough professionals – geologists, engineers, risk managers, emergency response professionals – in the public sector qualified to design proper emergency preparedness plans. Instead, key offices are stuffed with cronies being rewarded for their political loyalties with what amount to Emergency Preparedness sinecures. Meanwhile, properly (and expensively) trained experts are unemployed, driving taxi cabs around Merida.  

Which is why the impact of an Andean “Big One” don’t bear thinking about. If the health service can barely cope with demand and food is difficult to find in “normal” times, try to imagine if a major earthquake went down.