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Monday, March 1, 2010

Why Was Chile's Death Toll Lower Than Haiti's?

Even though the earthquake that struck Chile Saturday was nearly 100 times more powerful than the one that struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti this January, the Chilean death toll was only in the hundreds, while Haiti's was upwards of 200,000 according to estimates. Why the difference?

The Haiti earthquake of 2010 was a 7.0 magnitude quake, whereas the Chile earthquake of 2010 was an 8.8 magnitude earthquake. While those seem relatively close together, it's important to remember that the scale is logarithmic, so an 8 .0 is ten times more powerful than a 7.0, and a 9.0 is one hundred times more powerful than a 7.0.

So why did the less powerful earthquake in Haiti kill hundreds of thousands more people than the earthquake that struck Chile?

Did Chile's Freer Economy Cause Its Lower Death Toll?

Chile has one of Latin America's strongest and wealthiest economies with the highest nominal GDP (the total value of all the goods and services produced in a period) per capita in Latin America (source). This is due in large measure, to the radical liberalization (read: "the application of libertarian reforms thereto") of Chilean trade policy, industry, and savings over the past three decades.

Haiti by contrast, is the poorest country in Latin America. Its poverty is rooted in the same causes that underlie poverty in other countries around the world: a heavy-handed, corrupt government, strangling bureaucratic regulations, and the lack of a simple, uniform system of private property rights.

Could it be that Chile's freer, more prosperous economy mitigated its death toll from the earthquake's devastating effects? Yes and no. While Chile does have superior building standards, more resources, and a better system of emergency response, and while that almost certainly did save hundreds or even thousands of lives the day of the earthquake, there are other reasons why Chile's death toll was lower than Haiti's.

The Proximity of the Quakes to Population Centers

The Huffington Post explains: "Saturday's quake was centered offshore an estimated 21 miles (34 kilometers) underground in a relatively unpopulated area while Haiti's tectonic mayhem struck closer to the surface – about 8 miles (13 kilometers) – and right on the edge of Port-au-Prince, factors that increased its destructiveness."

So while it's tempting for a libertarian to give all the credit to Friedman's market reforms in Chile over the last thirty years, it would be incredibly ignorant of the simple fact that Chile just got lucky. Again, there can be little doubt that if Chile's economy were as poor as that of the centrally-(mis)managed Haitian economy, that the carnage would have been worse, possibly much worse.

But ignoring the proximity of the respective earthquakes to population centers would be to miss a key factor in Chile's lower death toll.

Photo: / CC BY 2.0


  1. It's just the same if you compare earthquake damage and death tolls in Los Angeles and Tokyo with those figures in Haiti. Where more money is, there is more safety in the face of disasters. And where an economy is free, there is more money to spend on safety.

  2. Interesting. Because they happened so close together, I thought about Haiti and Chile, but hadn't thought about Haiti and LA or Tokyo. Perhaps some inspiration for more research... if I can find the time!