Archives For earthquake

On shaky ground

March 5, 2012

Mennonite Central Committee survives ‘major shift’ in CIDA donation-matching program, only to suffer serious shortfall in long-term funding by same device

When the massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was one of the fortunate non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to receive money for its relief work from the government fund set up to match donations from Canadians, but by then the ground beneath Canadian NGOs had already shifted.

MCC received $2.1 million for relief and development projects in Haiti, but now what fellow church aid organizations have called a “major shift” in the donation-matching program run by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is also responsible for the denial of nearly $9 million in funding for MCC projects over the next three years that was announced in early February.

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An earthquake in China, Haiti, or Chile, though tragic, seems far from home and difficult to imagine, even given the flood of multimedia that came from each of these disaster areas earlier this year.  On June 24, it all became frighteningly clear for residents of Quebec and Ontario.

“I was in the kitchen.  I was having a late breakfast,” says Albin Dzurnak, resident of Ottawa who experienced his first-ever seismic event in June when a magnitude 5.0 earthquake hit the region, with an epicentre near the Ontario-Quebec border about 60 km north of Ottawa.

“It was kind of strange, things were shaking, so I figured, well, this is not normal so it must be an earthquake,” says Dzurnak.

While media reports often focus on the magnitude figure of an earthquake to communicate its strength, the shaking is the first thing one feels.  And this is also central for engineers.  “From the engineering point of view, the magnitude of the earthquake is not the controlling parameter and becomes almost irrelevant information,” says Carlos Ventura, professor of civil engineering at the University of British Columbia.

“What is important is how far from the epicentre or from the rupture zone a building is located and the severity of the shaking at that location,” says Ventura.  “For example, the level of shaking experienced by the [8.8 magnitude] earthquake in Santiago, Chile [this year] is very similar to that experienced [there] in 1985, which was 7.8-magnitude.

Earthquake magnitude is a measure of the energy released by the seismic event, but the amount of shaking this creates in a given location depends on many factors, says Professor John Clague, Canada Research Chair in Natural Hazards Research at Simon Fraser University.

Shake map and location map for Ontario-Quebec earthquake

The ShakeMap and location map for the June 24, 2010, 5.2-magnitude, central Canada earthquake (depth: 16 km)

The severity of shaking depends on the distance from the epicentre, its depth, and other factors. Around the recent earthquake, “The crust is not as highly faulted and broken up, it’s less heterogeneous,” says Clague. “You’re right in the middle of a plate, the North America plate.”

“You’re not in an area where the crust is overly thickened, where it’s [not] particularly hot, and that allows seismic waves to propagate with less attenuation, less loss of energy over larger distances,” says Clague, which is why the central Canada quake was felt as far as New York City. “On the west coast, an earthquake like [that] would not be terribly remarkable.”

Most people have heard of the Richter scale for measuring the size of an earthquake, but in fact, the popularized scale, which originally applied mainly to California’s seismic landscape, has long been supplanted by the more accurate moment magnitude scale.

“If you’re to think of a fault as being the slipping of two surfaces, one against the other, the moment magnitude is the product of the area of the whole fault, times how far it slips, times how strong the rock was that it broke,” says professor and seismologist Olivia Jensen of McGill University. “The stronger the rock was that it broke, the stronger the earthquake.”

“For big events the numbers would be pretty much the same as Richter numbers,” says Jensen.

Summing up his feelings on his first earthquake experience with tongue slightly in cheek, Dzurnak says,  “I was happy about the earthquake and I wish there were more of those so that people are reminded that, ‘hey this is Mother Nature talking to you,’ and you have to deal with it.  You either deal with it or you die, that’s how it works.”

Sound: Listen to Professor John Clague to find out how a train can end up beside its track instead of on it and how man-made reservoirs and oil exploration can make earthquakes more likely:


My grandpa says this is the best country in the world.  In spite of the politics, the poverty and the seismic and volcanic disruptions, Chile’s excellent climate, its natural beauty, its diverse landscapes and its bountiful food production make the country a wonderful place to live.  He also says that it’s the country of the compadres.  In generations past, I’m told, the compadre was a good friend, perhaps a relative.  A compadre was also something of a godfather figure who looked out for his own and could be counted on to help one get into a good position.  Today, the compadre can be thought of as a well-placed buddy or a good connection.  But in either case, what remains true is that compadres look out for compadres.

In practical terms what this means is that elites on the political scene are difficult to distinguish from elites in the economic world and that interests in both arenas often run parallel.  Consequently, legislation at the political level that runs counter to the interests of the empresarios (entrepreneurs/business owners) is often a great challenge to push through.  The other meaning is that if you’re not a compadre or if you don’t know one, it may be tough to make it. In fact, it’s a general sentiment among average Chileans that this is far from the land of opportunity, and that unless you have a certain last name or a fortunate connection (which some call a pituto), you aren’t likely to do very well.

a group of men in suits sit and stand around a long dining table

The compadres of generations past (see if you can pick out my grandpa)

In a country of 16.6 million people spread over 4300 km from north to south, it’s a small elite who hold the wealth of the nation, in addition to foreign companies that have been allowed access through trade agreements and large scale privatization.  This distribution was made evident during the recent humanitarian effort to raise money for the victims of the massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake that battered much of central and southern Chile.  A telethon was organized days after the disaster, which brought in incredible donations from certain companies and certain families.  The donations were so large as to take the average Chilean aback and revealed in no uncertain way the true sources of wealth in the country.

But beyond the peso, in Chile trust is the currency highly valued and not easily come by.  And this plays into the culture of the compadre, such that merit may simply not be enough to get you that sought-after job.  What has many in the country frustrated is that at the same time, education continues to be a high priority and more and more are being prepared at the highest levels (and at very high personal cost), with an apparent void of opportunities, especially merit-based ones.

However, it is not merely merit-based opportunities that appear to be lacking, but also important information about the shortfalls in Chile’s labour market to inform all those would-be universitarios in whose interest it might be to know what sectors of the economy are in need of qualified people (like this — Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s under-appreciated and perhaps little known labour market information bank).  Let the market allocate people to where there is a need, some may say, and this seems to be the theory behind the excess of post-secondary institutions in Santiago, Chile’s capital and bastion of progress.  The institutions seem to say, the market will find a place for our graduates, so let’s pump out as many as are willing to pay.  And make no mistake, there is a market for higher education: enter Santiago’s 40 universities, the majority of which are private, not to mention the professional institutes and training centres.

But what lies on the other side — a flood of graduates of varying quality in a given field and an unknown job market — is what provokes the disquiet which invariably comes up in conversation with people from the lower and middle classes in any part of the country I’ve visited.  Without a compadre (and badly needed reforms), an education may not carry the expected value and so when speaking with an outsider-Chileno like me, I find that many people have uncles, nieces, cousins or children who have lost the chance to leave or have left Chile in search of greater education and the opportunities that may follow, much as my own parents did in 1981.

Earthquake Redux

April 25, 2010

The sound of a seismic event is unmistakable.  I realize the earthquake has been a recurring theme of this blog, but read on and you’ll realize why.

On the scale of an individual human, the vibration is global, all encompassing.  Everything one can feel, see, touch, and hear is at first vibrating, then shaking, then convulsing, and then ceasing, on a dime.  The occurrence here has become incessantly intermittent, to the point of paranoia.  It shakes often enough to make one think it is when it isn’t (perhaps when a bus passes nearby), but with enough unpredictability to produce a schizophrenia that leaves an entire population with frayed nerves and on edge.

Case in point: on the night of April 4th, I was in Santiago staying at my tia Loreto’s house.  Sleeping arrangements had been made to accommodate me along with my three cousins, and just after 11 the lights were off and the eyelids gained weight.  The first images of sleep had begun to appear when came the vibrations.  At once, eyes open, adrenaline awakened.  One expects it to pass, so staying in bed is the norm.  It vibrates, then it begins to shake, sound emanates from everything.  Soon we feel it begin to subside, we can exhale, but suddenly it gains strength and in an instant, BOOM, we feel the shock portion of the aftershock.

19th century adobe brick house with earthquake damage

Some of the damages to the 19th century adobe brick Urbina family house in Santiago, Chile (not the one from my story)

The house seems to jump, perhaps like a house in a neighbourhood being bombed might, and we all equally jump out of bed and into the hall.  As aftershocks go, it was minor (4.4 magnitude), but the proximity made it seem ominous, with an epicentre a mere 35 km away from Santiago.  Catalina, the youngest of my cousins, complains that she was just falling asleep, while my aunt climbs the stairs to check on us and exclaim that it’s enough already.  The sentiment is popular.  And it doesn’t seem much to ask in a country that was hammered by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and that has been suffering hundreds of aftershocks, including one in mid-March of magnitude 7.3 (0.3 degrees stronger than the quake that struck Haiti).

The feeling, and above all the sound, brings on fear, perhaps panic and a realization of helplessness before the cycles of the planet.  These were my first days back from the north of Chile where, unfortunately, we can expect a large seismic event to hit in the comings months, if what we hear is right.

Quakin’ all over

April 10, 2010

Since I arrived in Chile and especially since I got to Isla Negra on the central coast, I’ve been surrounded by sounds.  I arrived in Chile on March 7th, one week later than scheduled.  My flight had been postponed due to the movement of the Earth’s crust, no less.  In the early morning of February 27th, Chile suffered a massive earthquake which surged to 8.8 on the Richter scale, many times stronger than the seismic tragedy that struck the people of Haiti in January.

Reports, both personal and official, cite that the ground in central and southern Chile shook for about 2 minutes.  When one considers this quickly, two minutes does not seem very long.  Years ago, I might have been guilty of thinking a similar thought.  When I last visited my family in Chile, no less than 3 tremors sent waves through this part of the planet.  Two were very short, maybe 5 or 6 seconds.  One, however, lasted longer and shook the ground in waves that moved my chair from side to side seemingly without end.  In truth, the “sismo” probably lasted 10 or 15 seconds.  But now I know what it is to feel that an earthquake is never-ending.

What I didn’t remember from last time, but what my grandpa and my Uncle Ignacio made sure I knew about, was the sound, which brings out the true sense of what it means to live through an earthquake.  The amount of noise was incredible, they explained, which is only natural when you consider that every last object, the building you sit in, and everything that surrounds you begins to vibrate with telluric force.

Television in Chile has been broadcasting videos from up and down the country, eye witnesses to the strength of the quake and the panic it incited.  And within 4 days of arriving in Chile, we’d already felt 3 or 4 tremors, ripples of the original giant.

On March 11th, I heard the sound again: the slow and sinuous rumble that made people in the region think that a second earthquake was underway.  A 7.2 on the Richter scale caused many to believe the aftershock was much more.  I’ve thought, at times, about what exactly would be the most compromising position to be in when an earthquake hits.  On the 11th I believe I was in it: on the toilet.

toilet I sat on during a large aftershock

the worst place to be when an earthquake hits (where I was)

As I sat there and spoke to my dad through the door, I felt relieved, knowing at least that I was pretty well done my work and could pull up my pants and jump outside without major incident.  Though the seismic event lasted maybe 20 seconds, I had no clear indication that it was not the beginning of the worst circumstance, but only the rumbling sound and the temporary movement of my throne room.