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.

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  1. I may be wrong but the pre-eterno comandante may have signed onto the Summit of the Americas Declaration of Quebec in 2001 on Disaster Management at http://www.summit-americas.org/sisca/dm.html.

    “We commit to strengthening hemispheric cooperation and national capacities to develop a more integrated approach to the management of natural disasters. We will continue to implement policies that enhance our ability to prevent, mitigate and respond to the consequences of natural disasters. We agree to study measures to facilitate timely access to financial resources to address emergency needs (Declaration of Québec, 2001)”.


    “Recognizing the need to develop, implement and sustain shared comprehensive disaster management strategies and programs to reduce the vulnerability of our populations and economies to natural and man made disasters and to maintain or quickly restore minimum levels of consumption, income and production at the household and community levels in the aftermath of disasters, including irregular population settlements; acknowledging in this regard the need to expand the community of stakeholders at the regional, national and local levels engaged in the formulation of early warning systems, the management of risk and response operations in the event of disasters and integrated sustainable development strategies (Plan of Action Québec, 2001)”.

  2. In June 2002, Venezuela advised the OAS that Bolivarian Venezuela’s Ministry of Science and Technology and its subordinate agencies had created a new Disaster Risk Management and Reduction Program. The “central objective of the first phase of this new program was to develop a coherent, feasible, and sustainable set of proposals, strategies, and instruments which, from a multidisciplinary and integrated scientific platform, can provide guidance to the state, communities, and national institutions on means to improve their disaster risk management and reduction policies and programs.”

    They also advised that its “[i]mplementation is already under way.”

  3. What will the Chavistas say when a big quake or any other natural disaster hits in Venezuela? Will they blame Uribe, or El Imperio for building weak structures and promoting ranchitos everywhere? Have they done anything since “El Desastre de Vargas”, when up to 30,000 people were killed simply because it rained a bit too much in 1999? Of course not. Doing anything about it costs money, and there is little of that left to steal.

  4. I grew up in Merida, so I grew up hearing stories about the 70 year cycle or whatever the number is. What worries me is not only the lack of specification and code building, is also the location!!! … Drive down Av 2 Lora and you will see all houses clinging to the edge of the plateau. Go inside Santa Elena and the same. I once peered from the balcony of one of the houses in the edge of the plateau in St Elena and had a panic attack, you are like in the air, literally. I can only speculate that if something really serious happen all those house will end up in El Albarregas or El Chama rivers.

  5. Until 2003, Funvisis used to keep all design regulations up to date with the rest of the world. Funvisis design and construction code was based on the ASCE which is the American society of civil engineers.
    This code is updated and changed almost after every major earthquake in the world, it is based on test and studies made not only in the US but also in Europe and anyone willing to provide a paper with enough backup support. If I remember correctly, back in the early ’80s, some Venezuelan engineers submitted a change to the rebar fabrication code and it is still valid.
    Construction inspections, at least structural inspections, it is not done properly for years. This is not a chavismo only problem, it has been like this since the ’70s so imagine the current conditions of any building in Caracas.
    The industry praise “el maestro de obra” as a super experienced guy that can build anything, this is usually the case regarding experience but they don’t know why things are design in a certain way.
    All structures in barrios are built this way, based on previous experience without a single calculation been made. Back in the early ’90s, a group of structural engineers from UCV published a paper on how the barrios will react to a major earthquake in Caracas and the conclusion was they dont know. First, the unknown geological conditions were the house/building foundations were placed and also the fact that many houses are attached together and the entire barrio could work as a massive superstructure.
    Due to the housing scarcity, many families expanded their houses adding additional floors to their houses, this is happening even in the upper class neighborhoods in Caracas.
    Investing in disaster management and planning is not something appealing to anyone, it doesn’t give you votes and even under the circumstances were you need it could not be enough.


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