Believe it or not, the little green dots represent the epicenters of earthquakes in Costa Rica from 1985 to 2008, based on a new map released last week by the Red Sismológica Nacional. Arrows show the direction of tectonic plates that are causing many of the quakes.
Even though it is common knowledge that Costa Rica is a seismically active country, not everybody knows that it is the third country in the world with the highest seismic activity. In fact, it is the most seismic nations in Central America. One would expect that in a country ranking among the first earthquake-prone nations, its government and population would be decently prepared.
However, Costa Rica might also be among the least prepared countries to deal with seismic disasters, which directly threatens not only its citizens but also its growing Expat community.
They say the best way to predict the future is looking at the past. From the time important events started getting recorded as news (the beginnings of 1900s), Costa Rica has documented rough encounters with its seismic reality, from which the following events are the most significant:
May 4, 1910. A 6.7 magnitude earthquake shook Cartago (the country’s capital at the time), destroying the city, causing between 400 and 700 deaths and leaving hundreds injured. This is the earthquake with most casualties so far. A photographic account is provided by a North Carolina man who posted family photos of the event.
March 4, 1924. Orotina – a town located west of San Jose, 30 minutes from the Pacific Coast – suffered a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, causing the highest level of destruction ever recorded in Costa Rica, and killing 70 people.
Oct. 5, 1950. A 7.7 magnitude earthquake rattled the second biggest city in the northern Pacific province of Guanacaste, releasing the most tectonic energy ever recorded in the country and killing dozens of people.
April 22, 1991. Limón – the biggest city in the Caribbean province with the same name – was shaken by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, causing major structural damage and 50 casualties.
Jan. 8, 2009. A 6.2 magnitude earthquake destroyed the mountain town of Cinchona – in the province of Alajuela – killing 23 people, leaving 7 people missing and injuring dozens, plus changing the area’s landscape and scenic attractions after causing 180 landslides.
Looking into how the government has responded to the latest seismic event, one can foresee what the future holds. The Cinchona earthquake caused 280 billion colons ($482 million) in damages. It destroyed 30 kilometers of roads from Los Cartagos to Cariblanco, of which five kilometers disappeared. Only 40 of the surviving people have obtained government housing and 300 are still waiting in relatives’ homes. 261 families are scheduled to receive their homes in July or August of next year. So far, the government has been sending money to 500 families to rent apartments in nearby towns, but in the next few weeks, the Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social will continue helping only priority cases.
Now more than nine months after the Cinchona quake, President Óscar Arias Sánchez and Vanessa Rosales of the National Emergency Commission inaugurated a new location for the town. That happened Friday. The location is in Ujarrás de Cariblanco, in Alajuela province. The 60 hectares (148 acres) cost nearly $1 million and will accommodate 93 families who were earthquake victims. Arias thanked the families for their great patience and said that construction would begin soon.
Meanwhile, the emergency commission finally has begun distribution of construction materials to help other victims repair damage. The first delivery of concrete blocks and concrete was done in Santa Bárbara de Heredia at the end of September.
In general, surviving victims say government assistance has been insufficient. Irregularities involving the emergency commission response and operations have been reported, including inefficient distribution of goods donated by the population to the affected areas. There was overspending on construction materials two years ago for disaster prevention projects that were never completed and are not being used to relieve the housing needs in Cinchona. There is also lack of disaster action planning and retention of funds donated by the Costa Rican population to the earthquake victims who still need them.
The question is when a disaster like the one in Cinchona occurs in the Central Valley, who is going to control effectively the money destined for emergencies?
Multiple warnings have been given by experts through the media for years. A major earthquake has been predicted by the experts for the area of Nicoya since the 1990s, and the population has been sufficiently informed by newspapers and news programs since then.
For example, A.M. Costa Rica reported Sept. 7 that a new report from the Universidad de Costa Rica characterized the nation as a web of quake faults. Although residents of the Nicoya Peninsula are reminded periodically that a major earthquake is likely there, Costa Rica also has at least 150 local faults that can cause serious damage, the Red Sismológica Nacional, an agency of the Universidad de Costa Rica has warned.
The last earthquake recorded in Nicoya was the one in 1950, and they are expected to occur every 50 years. The peninsula is supposed to be lifted 1.5 meters, but the event will not produce a major tsunami like the one in Asia in 2004, only a minor one due to the lifting of the land.
Big tsunamis are formed only when the ocean floor is lifted. When the shore land is being modified, the ocean does not react as strongly. The towns where most destruction is expected are Filadelfia and Santa Cruz, since they are located in an area where the fault is closest to the surface. This will create a liquefaction effect due to sandy soil characteristics. This earthquake will also be felt in San José, more strongly than the event that occurred in Limón in 1991.
The Red Sismológica Nacional report said that the Cinchona aftermath showed that the country lacks a clear policy on construction. Many of the deaths in Cinchona happened because the land gave way beneath structures.
The Red Nacional said that an important step would be having the nation implement a system of risk management. Such a proposal has been presented by the Colegio de Geólogos de Costa Rica to the central government and to the national emergency commission.
The largest seismic hazard along the whole Central American region is located in the south Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Three tectonic plates converge underground: the Cocos, Nasca and Panama Block. Besides, there are important faults all around the south Pacific territory.
San José is the city with the highest seismic risk in Central America, followed by Guatemala City and San Salvador, due to deficiencies in building structures and urban planning. In addition, San José hosts 2.5 million people, 57 percent of the total population in the country.
Of great concern is the road chaos an earthquake would cause in the Central Valley. Experts from the Laboratorio Nacional de Materiales y Modelos Estructurales determined that most bridges in the valley are extremely vulnerable to earthquakes, a condition evidenced in most bridges after the 7.7 magnitude earthquake in Limón. The lab will issue a seismic code for bridge constructions in 2010, which will complement the new edition of the general seismic code.
Not surprisingly, Escazú and Santa Ana, areas where most expats live — besides the Pacific Coast — are located over many tectonic faults, and many real estate projects are in high risk of landslides. Ms. Rosales of the national emergency committee said that developers should not be frightened by Costa Rica’s earthquake hazard. Instead, they should just follow the seismic code and environmental recommendations when building.
However, a country completely unprepared for expected and recurrent hazards presents a problem to any foreign investor.