EarthquakesEarthquake Expert Who Advised the Haiti Government in 2010: “Why Were Clear Early Warning Signs Missed?”

By Luigi Di Sarno and Adam Mannis

Published 23 September 2021

There have been very few improvements in Haiti’s seismic early warning systems between the 2010 and the 14 August 2021 earthquakes. For example, a seismic network was installed in some private residences in different locations in Haiti. These data can be easily and freely accessed online. But this network has not been efficiently used for early warning alerts. A quick examination of the data revealed that at least two strong motions (with magnitude 4.0 or above) were recorded before August 14 along the Enriquillo Plantain Garden Fault. So the warning signs were there, but nobody – it seems – was looking out for them.

Luigi Di Sarno was part of a team of specialist advisers brought in to help the government of Haiti prepare for future earthquakes after 200,000 people were killed in 2010. Over a decade later, very few of their recommendations had been adopted.

It was about 8.30am, local time, on August 14 2021 when I felt the room starting to shake. I was lying in my bed on the top (21st) floor of a hotel in the Dominican Republic, to the eastern side of Haiti. The picture frames were swinging and I could see that the flat screen TV in front of the bed was also rocking from side to side.

It took me a few seconds to realize that the tremors the building was experiencing were caused by an earthquake – and I am a structural earthquake engineer, with nearly two decades of experience in academic teaching and research, plus professional consultancies for international firms and governmental agencies. But I suppose that goes to show what a shock a situation like that is to the human mind. It can be hard to believe it’s happening, and can take a moment to process.

It was Saturday and, being the first day of a bank holiday weekend, I thought that I could take some extra rest to relax. I was in Santo Domingo discussing the ageing bridges and vulnerability of historical buildings in the Ciudad Colonial UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. It had been a hectic week of meetings about structural engineering and earthquake risk mitigation.

When I first noticed the movement of the picture frames, I initially thought it was caused by a strong wind passing through the joints of the large sea-view windows. This had happened to me in the past, from high wind speeds caused by tropical storms. But this was not the case on that Saturday morning.

My instinctive reaction was to jump from the bed. By standing on the floor, I started to experience a sense of swaying. I was now sure that an earthquake had struck. To quickly double-check this, I filled a glass which was on my desk with water, and observed the liquid sloshing: clear evidence of the building shaking.