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The horrible loss of life and disastrous aftermath we have all been witness to this past week in Haiti has demonstrated the incredibly destructive power of an earthquake. Despite human efforts to tame nature, when matched against the power of seismic activity the inadequacies of our ingenuity and human frailty become very apparent. In the case of Haiti the fight was never even fair, the economic situation in Haiti; a country that has historically struggled with poverty, made the situation even worse. The homes and buildings of Port-au-Prince were not constructed with seismic activity in mind, they were built to provide basic shelter for as little cost as possible. Unfortunately the widespread collapse of the entire city is the result of these decisions. This is not to criticize Haitian society, when hampered by such economic constraints where you have to decide to provide basic shelter or non at all, the choice is obvious. Once again the poorest and most vulnerable societies suffer the worst and such is the case this past week in Haiti. We can only hope that somehow conditions and the ability to provide aid improve.


Designing buildings to withstand the challenges from nature has been going on since man built his first shelter and the battle continues today. However the challenges facing engineers when it comes to dealing with seismic activity is likely the most difficult and sometimes controversial. Many people would be surprised to find out that the Ottawa Valley is located in one of the more active seismic zones in North America and building codes define our area this way. Our area is located in what is called “The Western Quebec Seismic Zone” a zone that extends from Temiscaming to Montreal and the Laurentians. There have been three significant recorded quakes in this region; the first being in 1732, the two others occurring in 1935 & 1944. However there have been a number of weaker quakes and on average we experience some sort of seismic activity every five days. Our area actually experienced a small quake on the same day as the Haitian earthquake, a small 2.6MN quake that was centred approximately 7 km from Alfred started at 9:36pm, a quake this small would likely be felt but cause no damage.


Earthquake preparedness is often taught in some regions of the world, however despite our active seismic zone it is not a high priority here simply because the risk statistically isn’t there. Seismic preparedness is however a concern for professional engineers and can explain why buildings are constructed significantly different in our area in comparison with regions like Toronto, a privilege poorer areas of the world cannot afford.


In the meanwhile we would encourage you to support aid efforts for the people of Haiti, the losses these people have experienced are beyond the imagination and as a global village we must all care for those in need. If you can, please help.


Published in The Villager newspaper January 20, 2010

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