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



Lack of Public Information and Educational Communication Increases the Damage Caused by Natural Disasters

El Salvador can learn from the past and from the mistakes of others, and plan integrally, establishing realistic warning systems. Integral planning of preventive activities to mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters is an urgent need in El Salvador, where the earthquakes that have shaken the country since January have resulted in loss of life, property, and social capital.

Given the magnitude of the natural hazards that continue to threaten the country, it is all the more necessary to provide the population, through a strategy of public information and educational communication, with the capacity to respond in an effective and timely fashion in order to safeguard their lives and goods.

The effects of natural phenomena may combine to increase the suffering and bewilderment of the crowds. Earthquakes, for instance, may cause fractures and fissures in the soil, and landslides on hills and mountains; they may damage or destroy water mains and oil and gas pipelines; roads, telecommunications, and the supply of electricity to homes, offices and factories may be disrupted; and explosions and fires may occur.

Without holistic (integral) planning, the response by public utilities can be, quite simply, disastrous. One example is the Kobe earthquake. A few hours after the quake, attempting to restore things back to normal, the local power utility reestablished the flow of electricity at a time when large segments of the gas pipelines had been destroyed throughout the city.

Similarly, an unrealistic early-warning system can become a deadly trap—as in the case of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in the early morning of 18 May 1989. The eruption of the 2,536 meter-high volcano in Washington State killed 57; President Jimmy Carter blamed the victims for having supposedly gone beyond the perimeter fencing of the Red Zone, set up by the governor of the State. However, it was soon discovered that no fences had been set up, that the restricted area established by the governor only covered a perimeter of 5 Km from the critical area although the experts had recommended at least 16 Km, and that only three of the dead had been within the actual Red Zone. The other 54 individuals were outside, some as far as 55 Km from the Zone.

The Cycles of Nature and the Importance of Remembering History

The cycles that govern natural phenomena display patterns that cannot as yet be reliably predicted by science. If a phenomenon has not occurred until now, this does not rule out the possibility that it may happen sometime in the next century, in a year, or even this afternoon. The fact that a natural phenomenon has taken place in the past does not mean that it will occur again.

Nevertheless, the historical records are not lacking in relevance. On the contrary, history may serve to remind us of the inadequate responses of the past and teach us lessons that can prevent the loss of human lives and property.

For instance, although tsunamis are not common in Central America, the Pacific coast of the Isthmus is included in risk maps, and it is highly vulnerable should a tsunami occur. On 15 September 1902, a tsunami hit the ports of San José in Guatemala and La Libertad in El Salvador, injuring or killing around 400. On 1 September 1992, another tsunami struck Nicaragua’s Pacific coast with waves between 8 and 15 Km high, killing 179 and affecting 40,500 others. Economic devastation was high, and the environmental damage has not yet been estimated.

Similarly, the aftershocks of the earthquakes of 13 January and 13 February 2001 in El Salvador were treated as if they were unprecedented events. But between the morning of 29 December 1872 and the afternoon of 30 December there were a total of 81 seismic events in the region of San Vicente. On the 30th, there was a full earthquake, following by frequent and strong aftershocks. Between 21 and 31 December 1879, the area of Ilopango Lake suffered more than 600 temblors. On the night of the 27th, a 50-second long quake tore down hundreds of homes and buildings, affecting the populations of San Esteban, Istepeque, Tepetitlán, Santo Domingo and Santa Clara with more than 100 aftershocks. On 3 May 1965, an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale destroyed the city of San Salvador and caused severe damage in Ilopango, Soyapango and Ciudad Delgado; 15 Km of the capital were razed, 110 people died, 500 were injured and 50,000 were left homeless. The quake was preceded by more than 600 daily temblors between February and May. After the earthquake of 20 October 1986, another 2,508 aftershocks were recorded; they only stopped on 26 November. Between 2 and 16 April 1999, 87 temblors took place in the island of Manguera, in the Gulf of Fonseca.

One final example: the landslide caused by the earthquake of 13 January 2001, which buried 200 homes and killed 500 in the Las Colinas II development, south of the city of New San Salvador, also known as Santa Tecla. No one seemed to remember that on 10 October 1986, San Salvador had been shaken by a 7.5 earthquake that lasted five seconds and the epicenter of which was to be found in a fault 8 Km under Los Planes de Renderos, south of the capital. A landslide then buried 200 homes and killed 100 people in Santa Marta.

For more information, please contact:
Vicente Brunetti
Investigador y Consultor Internacional en Comunicación y Educación. Especialista en Proyectos y Estrategias de Información Pública y Comunicación Educativa para Prevenir y Mitigar Daños causados por Desastres Naturales. Autor de 23 libros sobre Comunicación y Educación.