Sunday, January 31, 2010

Disaster pornography and the Haiti earthquake

"Disaster pornography" is a term I had never heard of before, although apparently it has been "out there."  It refers to our fascination with the immediacy of disaster stories, but our failure to understand deeper structural causes, ones that the policies of our country may foster, such as the Atlantic slave trade that led to the Haitian Revolution in 1804, but also political interference and trade policies as of late.

I was very impressed with the description of this phenomenon for the Haiti earthquake by David Sirota. He also discusses the role of news media "stars," who sometimes seem to bask in the attention that on-site disaster reporting gives them.

Reminder and disclaimer: the more political aspects of this blog that occasionally pop up represent my personal views, and not those of LDCSN.

(Photo: Anderson Cooper, of CNN)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

NASA images of Haiti

The NASA (U.S. National Air and Space Administration) image below in the NY times article I referred to yesterday very nicely shows the Enriquilla-Plantain Garden Fault running left to right across the bottom of the photo. Click on the photo for more detail.

Other impressive images of Haiti can be found on this NASA web page.

These images are linked from NASA's general web page on Haiti, which includes other useful maps and information.  (Strange that such awesome images are embedded in an unsightly web page that looks like a large bruise, as black and blue as it is.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

NY Times article on the Haiti quake

The New York Times had the expected interesting article on the Haiti earthquake in its Tuesday science supplement.

I won't copy the article here, but some of the interesting points:
  • proximity to the boundaries of the Caribbean plate means natural hazards are expected
  • there are two major parallel faults - the Enriquillo and the Septentrional - crossing Haiti in an east-west direction
  • the earthquake rupture may actually increase the stress and earthquake probability on adjacent segments of the Enriquillo fault
  • the aftershock sequence has been rather active
  • there are NO permanent seismograph stations in Haiti
I'd say the article is slightly misleading, although not really wrong, in one respect.  It is said that one might have expected a failure on the Septentrional fault, rather than the one that occurred on the Enriquillo. An analogy is that if one were to flip a coin twice, one might "expect" the outcome to be one head and one tails, rather than two heads (or two tails). Indeed, there would be a 50% change of getting one head and one tails, and a 25% chance of getting either two heads, or two tails.  Ok, but it would neither be rare nor completely unexpected to get one of the other outcomes. So much of science, including earthquake forecasting, has to do with probabilities, but that is not a concept most people are very comfortable with.

The graphic below, from the article, is quite good. Makes me glad that when I worked in western Jamaica in 1999, on the westward extension of the same fault that was responsible for the Haiti quake, all was seismically quiet, although a major quake hit the area in 1957.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Haiti, the media, and looting

Once again, I digress from the science of the earthquake to refer you to an eloquent alternative perspective on the media treatment of the earthquake in Haiti, including the discussion of "looting."

Tom Engelhart, from Tom's Dispatch, make several points about the meida in his blog, including the following:
And of course, with the drama of people pulled from the rubble went another kind of drama:  impending violence -- even though the real story, as a number of reporters couldn’t help but notice, was the remarkable patience and altruistic willingness of Haitians to support each other, help each other, and organize each other in a situation where there was almost nothing to share.  It might, in fact, have been their finest hour, but amid the growing headlines about possible “violence” and “looting,” that would have been hard to tell.
Tom's piece, well written itself, is followed in the same blog entry by a longer essay by Rebecca Solnit, whose recent book, A Paradise Built in Hell, reflects on how communities bond after disasters. An extract:

Within days of the Haitian earthquake, for example, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of photographs with captions that kept deploying the word “looting.” One was of a man lying face down on the ground with this caption: “A Haitian police officer ties up a suspected looter who was carrying a bag of evaporated milk.” The man’s sweaty face looks up at the camera, beseeching, anguished.

Another photo was labeled: “Looting continued in Haiti on the third day after the earthquake, although there were more police in downtown Port-au-Prince.” It showed a somber crowd wandering amid shattered piles of concrete in a landscape where, visibly, there could be little worth taking anyway.

A third image was captioned: “A looter makes off with rolls of fabric from an earthquake-wrecked store.” Yet another: “The body of a police officer lies in a Port-au-Prince street. He was accidentally shot by fellow police who mistook him for a looter.”

The “looter” in the first photo might well have been taking that milk to starving children and babies, but for the news media that wasn’t the most urgent problem. The “looter” stooped under the weight of two big bolts of fabric might well have been bringing it to now homeless people trying to shelter from a fierce tropical sun under improvised tents.

The pictures do convey desperation, but they don’t convey crime. Except perhaps for that shooting of a fellow police officer -- his colleagues were so focused on property that they were reckless when it came to human life, and a man died for no good reason in a landscape already saturated with death.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

UNAVCO site in Haiti

Not too long ago, I first learned about UNAVCO,a consortium which exists to support university and other research investigators in their use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology for earth sciences research. The acronym is derived from "University NAVSTAR Consortium", with NAVSTAR being the generic term for and the forerunner of GPS.

UNAVCO has put together a supersite on the Haiti earthquake which contains some spectacular graphics, images, and links.

I'll highlight a couple of these in future posts.

Thanks to my colleague Bob Walter for bringing this site to my attention.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

GSA offers free downloads of papers on Haiti

2010 Haiti Earthquake and the Enriquillo-Plaintain Fault

In response to the  earthquake that struck southern Haiti, the Geological Society of America has made 14 relevant scientific papers available via open access (free).  These papers address the Caribbean plate and the Enriquillo-Plaintain fault line. 

Onthe GSA page, click on the article title, then the free text or pdf download.

Thank you, GSA. With the new semester upon us, these should be useful in the geology classroom.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

University of West Indies Seismic Research Centre

There is a Seismic Research Centre at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, as would be expected because of the high seismicity along the Caribbean tectonic plate.  I even applied for a job there years ago. There is not the easy access to real-time seismograms that other sites give, but there is information about the region, earthquake and volcanic hazards, and some information related to the Haiti earthquake.

Let's hope the education and outreach portion of this site can be augmented.

Friday, January 22, 2010

God, geology, natural disasters, and Haiti

Chances are you have heard of Pat Robertson's claim that Haitians are being punished for the failure of everyone who has ever lived there to follow his preferred version of Christianity for the totality of their history.

I guess that could be used to explain any natural disaster any place, any time, including the many earthquakes that have occured in the Holy Land of Israel.

Christoher Hitchens, whose recent book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, presents a pro-atheist wordview, had a nice response to Robertson's ridiculous posturing in Slate:

Slate Magazine
fighting words

A Fault Is Not a Sin

It's idiotic to blame anything other than geology for the Haitian earthquake.

By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010, at 11:55 AM ET

On Nov. 1, 1755—the feast of All Saint's Day—a terrifying combination of earthquake and tsunami shattered the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon. Numerous major churches were destroyed and many devout worshippers along with them. This cataclysmic event was a spur to two great enterprises: the European Enlightenment and the development of seismology. Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were only some of those who reasoned that no thinkable deity could have desired or ordained the obliteration of Catholic Lisbon, while other thinkers—Immanuel Kant among them—began to inquire into the possible natural causes of such events.

Today, we can clearly identify the "fault" that runs under the Atlantic Ocean and still puts Portugal and other countries at risk, and it took only a few more generations before there was a workable theory of continental drift. We live on a cooling planet with a volcanic interior that is insecurely coated with a thin crust of grinding tectonic plates. Earthquakes and tsunamis are to be expected and can even to some degree be anticipated. It's idiotic to ask whose fault it is. The Earth's thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone. These geological dislocations have no human-behavioral cause. The believers should relax; no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods "why" such disasters occur. A fault is not the same as a sin.

However, the believers can resist anything except temptation. Where would they be if such important and frightening things had natural and rational explanations? They want the gods to be blamed. After the titanic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, the Muslims of Indonesia launched a hugely successful campaign to recruit terrified local people to Islamic repentance. Following the more recent Asian tsunami of 2004, religious figures jostled to provide every possible "explanation" of tectonic events in terms of mere human conduct. (It was widely asserted in earlier times that earthquakes were caused by sodomy, yet San Francisco still stands, and when it suffered thousands of deaths in the catastrophic 1906 earthquake, it was rather more heterosexual than it is now.* Hurricane Katrina inundated much of New Orleans but saw fit to spare the immoral French Quarter.)

As so often, the first priest out of the trap on this occasion was that evil moron Pat Robertson, who announced on the Christian Broadcasting Network that Haitians had long ago made an agreement with Satan to enlist diabolic help against French imperialism. The implication was clear ... for this offense, God would kill underfed Haitian babies in slums 200 years later. (He would also kill the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, and bring his cathedral down on his head, though since Pat Robertson doesn't really think that Catholics are proper Christians, there's perhaps scant irony there.)

Robertson is stupidly trying to channel an event that may have occurred on the night of Aug. 14, 1791, when a large voodoo ceremony is said to have been held by the rebellious slaves of Haiti. After an animal sacrifice (of a black pig) to the maternal spirit of Ezili Danto, all present at Bois Caiman swore to slay their white Christian masters. This is sometimes taken as the signal for the revolt that, under the charismatic leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture, drove French troops and slaveholders from Haiti and established the world's first black republic. (The essential book here is The Black Jacobins, by Trinidadian author C.L.R. James.) Americans have good reason to be thankful for that outcome, because it was the vanquishing of Napoleon that enabled celebrated agnostic Thomas Jefferson to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase and double the size of the United States.

This would have been quite a useful pact with the devil, but voodoo or santería and their related religious fusions are not Satanistic. They are, rather, a localized and Africanized form of Catholic superstition, based on much the same calendar and communion of saints that was being celebrated in Lisbon on that day in 1755. And if any single thing explains the abject misery of Haiti in the years between independence and today, it is the prevalence of religious cultism in its various aspects. Voodoo keeps people afraid and makes them cowed into apathy by the nearness of the spirit world. It was exploited by the horrible Tonton Macoute regime of "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his gruesome son, who for decades kept the country as their own rack-rented fief. But please do not forget that Mother Teresa came to Port-au-Prince in 1981 to receive the Haitian Légion d'honneur from "Baby Doc," as well as to accept stolen money from him, and that the Vatican protected the foul system for as long as it was able. In September 1992, exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide denounced the Vatican from the podium of the United Nations, correctly pointing out that it maintained the only embassy that still recognized the continuing post-Duvalier dictatorship. Unfortunately, Aristide's own brand of religious populism was a failure. Still, one cannot believe that the Almighty has recently slaughtered so many Haitians because of the unbelievable squalidness of their competing priesthoods.

Currently, the cry is that Robertson is out of step and that it is Christian charities that are doing the hardest work. By all means let the pious agree to keep God out of it (though I wonder if that doesn't make them feel slightly insipid). However, the heaviest lifting will, in fact, be done by nonreligious outfits like UNICEF and the International Red Cross (which may sound Christian, but isn't). The biggest work of all will be performed by carrier groups and airborne brigades of the United States, the taxpayer-financed forces of a secular republic. The vital next stage—beyond mere charity and rescue—will be to try and liberate Haiti's people from fear of witch doctors of all stripes and to educate them in the family planning that their country so urgently needs. Let's see how the various parties of God come out on that.

In the meantime, I urge everybody to think first as a human being, and to give as much as they can to any relief organization at all, but most especially by contacting the newest secular aid group at Non-Believers Giving Aid.

Correction, Jan. 21, 2010: This piece originally and incorrectly asserted that San Francisco was last hit by an earthquake in 1906. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Google high-resolution maps of Haiti

From Wired:
Google has released new, higher-resolution satellite images of the Port-au-Prince area of Haiti that was devastated by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12.

The new impressively detailed photos were taken on Sunday, Jan. 17 and have resolution of around 6 inches, according to Google. You can see the full set of images in Google Maps in Satellite mode.

Last week, Google and GeoEye released a set of satellite images of Haiti taken on Jan. 13, just a day after the earthquake, along with previous images of the area from 2008.

Google is working to make the new imagery available as a layer in Google Earth as well. An updated Haiti earthquake layer for Google Earth is currently available with images from multiple sources as well as maps, including earthquake epicenters.

For more information on images of Haiti and other tech relief efforts, check out Wired's Danger Room’s coverage.
Although these high tech efforts can't directly feed people, I can see how they could be helpful to guide on-the-ground relief.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti: looting, or self-relief?

The news is reporting increasing anger and frustration among the populace of Haiti. With the immensity of the damage, the slow speed of the relief efforts, and the widespread poverty and poor infrastructure to begin with, can people be blamed?

I'm not sure what to make of the skimpy reports of looting. I imagine there is some theft of semi-luxury items, but who could blame people for taking food and water from stores that would declare total insurance losses anyway?

This is the Merriam-Webster definition of "looting":

1 a : to plunder or sack in war 
   b : to rob especially on a large scale and usually by violence or corruption
2 : to seize and carry away by force especially in war

I'm not sure the word "loot" is quite the right one to describe what is probably happening in Haiti.

I wonder how much the use of this word is bound up with images of race and poverty?

It may be too early to really know, but there were some interesting comments on this issue after Hurricane Katrina:

New Orleans, Looted
By Bidisha Banerjee Posted Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005, at 7:26 PM ET
New Orleans, looted: Bloggers ponder the moral dilemma of looting in New Orleans. Some of the most corrosive disapproval comes from the city's residents. "I'm all for grace. But it's very difficult not to hope they get shot on sight," writes Otter's Burrow, a medieval literature Ph.D. displaced by the hurricane. It's Just the Perspective's Frank, another evacuee, is even more abrasive: "I mean, there's actual video of these animals running around with handfuls and basketfuls of stuff they've stolen from stores...many of them laughing about it. I don't want to come across as racist, but it's the poor black people creating a warzone out of the natural disaster that's plagued the entire city."

Much of the talk of race, looting, and the media's coverage of it all has been sparked by Flickr user Dustin3000, who posted this screenschot of a Yahoo! page containing two similar photos with very different captions. Tech blog Boing-Boing's Xeni Jardin explains: "The images were shot by different photographers, and captioned by different photo wire services. The Associated Press caption accompanying the image with a black person says he's just finished 'looting' a grocery store. The AFP/Getty Images caption describes lighter skinned people 'finding' bread and soda from a grocery store." Many are taking the captions as an unambiguous marker of racial bias in the media. Ramblings of a Tainted Mind's jadedmyrrhmaid believes, "Now maybe they did ask these people where they got the stuff, and it doesn't much matter at this point, everything may as well be eaten before it goes bad....but it does make the press look like assholes." Bol at hip-hop blog Mindset of a Champion, asserts: "The message here is clear: A white man's property rights is greater than a jig's life." Stone-Bridge's Huitzil, a Texan, shares similar concerns about media coverage. He says that most people seem to be taking necessities, and that the looting is justified "since the Corps of Engineers does not seem to have had an actual plan in place to deal with levee failure."

Law professor Ann Althouse has iniated a more nuanced discussion of the ethics of looting. "It's almost an invasion of privacy to photograph people doing bad things when they are in such a state. But we've got to also feel sympathy for the rest of the people who are stranded there and frightened by a breakdown in order," she claims.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Is technology helping the Haiti relief effort?

This story from NPR was about tweeting, mashups, cell phone texting donations, geeks, and relief efforts in Haiti.

I'm not yet that impressed. It still seems the bottleneck is feet on the ground (see, e.g., this Wall Street Journal article), and the food and water that goes with them.

Figures:, and

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti relief efforts

The toll in Haiti is a tragedy of indescribable dimensions.  Many relief efforts are underway, although poor infrastructure will make effective relief efforts difficult (see, e.g., this NY Times article).

But I will make a donation like many of you will. There are many worthwhile agencies. Two that I have used in the past are:

Mennonite Central Committee - based here in Lancaster County; a number of my neighbors and acquaintances work for this group.

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee - my own particular religious background.

And many more - see, for example, this list from AlterNet.

There is always the Red Cross, although I have shied away from this agency because of past management problems.

photo from

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haiti 7.0 earthquake

Once again with the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti we are reminded that earthquakes occur where they have occurred before. The principal of uniformitarianism says that the present is the key to the past (i.e., we can understand what we see in the rock record by observing processes that occur on Earth today). But conversely, the past is the key to the present.

That the Caribbean is an area of much recent seismicity can be seen in the graphic below from the USGS:

Note that this event occurred on a transform boundary.

NPR describes the tectonics of the region:

... the Caribbean plate is moving east in relation to the North American plate. Large earthquakes frequently occur on these plate boundaries.

The Caribbean plate has been moving about a quarter of an inch per year, relative to the North American plate. But the two plates don't simply glide past one another. Strain builds up along faults at the plate boundaries, until it's released in a sudden burst of energy. That's an earthquake.

There are two major faults along Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This earthquake occurred on the southern fault, the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system.There hasn't been a major quake on this system for about 200 years. That means stress has been building up there for quite some time. When the strain finally grew too large, rock along the fault failed, and released a huge burst of energy in less than a minute.
... it appears that 30 to 60 miles of the fault gave way. That not only triggered the original quake but has also generated more than a dozen aftershocks of magnitude 5 or higher. Those are also strong quakes, and they pose a risk to the buildings that were damaged in the original shock.
A ScienceDaily news article from 5 years ago summarizes research on past and inevitable future large quakes and resulting tsunamis in the region:

ScienceDaily (Feb. 8, 2005) — A dozen major earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have occurred in the Caribbean near Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in the past 500 years, and several have generated tsunamis. The most recent major earthquake, a magnitude 8.1 in 1946, resulted in a tsunami that killed a reported 1,600 people.

With nearly twenty million people now living in this tourist region and a major earthquake occurring on average every 50 years, scientists say it is not a question of if it will happen but when. They are calling for the establishment of tsunami early warning systems in the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, and better public education about the real tsunami threats in these regions.
In a new study published December 24, 2004 in the Journal of Geophysical Research from the American Geophysical Union, geologists Uri ten Brink of the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole and Jian Lin of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) report a heightened earthquake risk of the Septentrional fault zone, which cuts through the highly populated region of the Cibao valley in the Dominican Republic. In addition, they caution, the geologically active offshore Puerto Rico and Hispaniola trenches are capable of producing earthquakes of magnitude 7.5 and higher. The Indonesian earthquake on December 26, which generated a tsunami that killed (to date) an estimated 150,000 people, came from a fault of similar structure, but was a magnitude 9.0, much larger than the recorded quakes near the Puerto Rico Trench.
The Puerto Rico Trench, roughly parallel to and about 75 miles off the northern coast of Puerto Rico, is about 900 kilometers (560 miles) long and 100 kilometers (60 miles) wide. The deepest point in the Atlantic Ocean, the trench is 8,340 meters (27,362 feet) below the sea surface. The Hispaniola Trench parallels the north coast of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and is 550 kilometers (344 miles) long and only 4,500 meters (14,764 feet) deep...
Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands sit on top of small crustal blocks that are sandwiched between the North American and Caribbean plates. The island of Hispaniola faces a double risk: an earthquake from the Septentrional fault on the island itself as the plates move past each other, and an earthquake deep in the earth in the subduction zone on which the island sits. Both could cause severe damage and loss of life, although the researchers say an earthquake in the subduction zone could be more devastating and has the potential to cause a tsunami...
The Puerto Rico Trench, which is capable of producing earthquakes of magnitude 7 to 8 or greater, faces north and east into the Atlantic Ocean. There are few land areas or islands to block a tsunami generated near the Puerto Rico Trench from entering the Atlantic Ocean. The direction of the waves would depend on many factors, including where in the trench the earthquake occurred.

Chris Rowan also has a nice Highly Allochthonous blog entry on this quake.