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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – The top Dominican seismologist is urging emergency preparedness after several moderate earthquakes shook buildings and rattled nerves in January.
At least six light and moderate quakes have hit the island in recent weeks, including one that registered a 5.4-magnitude on the Richter scale. Only slight damage – mainly superficial cracks on buildings in northern Dominican Republic – and no injuries were reported.
However, Eugenio Polanco, director of the Seismology Institute at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, said the temblors should remind Dominicans of risks in a country prone to earthquakes.
“We have several faults and trenches on or near the island,” Polanco said. “In a country vulnerable to earthquakes, you should be prepared and know what to do” in case of a major quake.
The recent series of quakes in no way should be seen as predictive that a larger catastrophic earthquake is soon to hit, he said.
“This is normal seismic activity,” he said. “People should not panic. But they should be prepared.”
Polanco’s message took on added significance recently when scientists published a study forecasting a shaky future for the island of Hispaniola, shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The study, published in the February edition of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, looked at five centuries of seismological records for the island. It concluded that “the entire Enriquillo fault system appears to be seismically active; Haiti and the Dominican Republic should prepare for future devastating earthquakes there.”
The Enriquillo fault system produced the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that toppled much of Haiti in January 2010.
“The 2010 Haiti earthquake may mark the beginning of a new cycle of large earthquakes on the Enriquillo fault system after 240 years of seismic quiescence,” researchers wrote.
Following the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced an estimated 1.5 million, both Haiti and the Dominican Republic have taken steps to update their emergency plans.
Dominican President Leonel Fernández requested an analysis of the country’s risks and recommendations for preparation.
In 2009, the country finalized a national emergency plan that largely focused on preparing for tropical storms and hurricanes.
More recently, the Center for Emergency Operations and several other government emergency response agencies launched a plan to inform citizens of what to do during an earthquake.
“We have been working for the past two years on ways to prepare the country for an earthquake,” a representative of the center said.
The recent series of quakes prompted the government to launch workshops and public meetings to urge residents to ready a plan.
“The [recent] earthquakes scared me because I hadn’t really thought about it in a while,” said Margarita González as she was shopping at a grocery store for items to make an emergency kit. “It’s better to be prepared.”
Amid efforts to reconstruct the country after the disastrous earthquake, Haiti has also looked at preparing for disaster.
Humanitarian organizations working in the country have incorporated disaster preparedness into their reconstruction efforts.
The United Nations Development Program has helped Haitian authorities develop a map that details areas of Port-au-Prince that are highly susceptible to future earthquakes. That information is key to guiding the rebuilding effort, as authorities will know which buildings need more reinforcement.
Shoddy construction, few building codes and abject poverty made the city susceptible to catastrophe. Nearly 300,000 houses and commercial buildings were destroyed or badly damaged. Rubble still crowds Port-au-Prince streets.
The systemic shortcomings that made Haiti vulnerable to mass destruction two years ago also left the country highly unprepared to study seismic activity. The country had no seismologists.
Haitian charity the Voilà Foundation paid for two students to study seismology at the Purdue University. They will be Haiti’s first seismologists when they finish with their studies.
“It was the January 12th earthquake that motivated me to study seismology,” Roby Douilly, one of the students, told the journal Nature a year ago. “Someone has to take the lead.”