International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001

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Prevention Pays

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The Colombian Earthquake of January 1999: Lessons for Seismic Disaster Prevention and Response
Omar D. Cardona A.


On 25 January 1999, at 1:19 p.m. local time, a 6.2ML earthquake shook the Colombian Midwest, a traditional coffee-growing area. Severe damages were reported in Armenia (270,000 inhabitants), the capital of Quindio Department, as well as in the capital of Risaralda Department, Pereira (380,000 inhabitants). The death toll rose to 1,230. Hospitals tended to 5,300 patients with various types of injuries, and it is estimated that 200,000 people lost their home or workplace. With close to 50,000 buildings damaged or destroyed, the impact of the quake may well have reached 1.5 percent of Colombia’s GNP.

fotocol.gif (32598 bytes)Most of the damage involved older buildings that had not been reinforced and had been built before the passing, in 1984, of the first building code to take into account seismic hazards as a result of the 1983 PopayŠn earthquake.

The Armenia tremors also caused a significant number of landslides affecting the roads that connect that city with the rest of the country.

From the moment the first rumblings of the disaster were detected by the National Seismological Network, the National Disaster Prevention and Response System went into action. This decentralized inter-institutional system was established after the Armero del Ruiz volcanic eruption of 1985. Its value became clear after the magnitude of the quake overwhelmed both the Local and the Regional Disaster Prevention and Response Committees.


Lessons learned

The Armenia disaster taught many lessons about seismic engineering and disaster prevention.

  • A city with an abundant inventory of fragile non-reinforced masonry structures, and reinforced concrete buildings which do not meet the minimum criteria of seismic resistance, is a city at risk.

  • The adverse interaction of non-structural elements with existing structures caused severe damage, and may have led to the collapse of buildings. The short-column effect was common, as was the torsion caused by the asymmetrical configuration of masonry walls and the poor structural behaviour of buldings with irregular shapes.

  • Once again, it became clear that it pays to comply with earthquake-resistant building codes. This approach protects both lives and property.

  • The need to retrofit buildings that host valuable community services was highlighted by the quake. Hospitals, firefighters’ facilities, and all other facilities aimed primarily at providing public services, must be examined by knowledgeable engineers and retrofitted, as needed, to withstand seismic events.

  • Traditional knowledge must not be disregarded. Starting in the 19th Century, local traditions in bamboo construction have withstood the test of time. They are a technology that has evolved and perfected itself because of its ability to withstand earthquakes.

  • Local response is crucial. Municipalities and other local governments must have a Disaster Prevention and Response Committee with enough resources and adequate leadership to handle any emergency in progress and prepare for potential threats.

  • At the level of medium-sized to large human settlements, there is a need for inter-institutional risk mitigation programmes that comprise technical know-how, planning, education, public information, and preparedeness.

  • Speaking of this particular instance, the National Disaster Prevention and Response Directorate must be strengthened. The technical capacity and convening power it had in the past must be re-invigorated by providing the necessary resources.

To contact the author of the previous report, please write to Omar D. Cardona, Director, Centro de Estudios sobre Desastres y Riesgos (CEDERI), Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, Colombia, at: