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Preparing for the Big One

After years of warnings, Costa Rica is finally getting serious about disaster planning.

An official inspects a crack in the road after an earthquake in San Pedro de Poas, 25 miles north of San Jose, Jan. 8, 2009. (Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters)

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Eugenia Baltodano does what she can to eke out a living growing enough rice, beans and corn to feed herself and her 12 children. But making ends meet isn't Baltodano's only concern. She's also worried about her village's ability to withstand what scientists have been warning about for years: the Big One.

"People are afraid, but at the same time, they just don't believe it will ever happen," she said.

Scientists warn a magnitude 7.9 earthquake could strike at any moment under the Nicoya Peninsula. Marino Protti, a seismologist with Costa Rica's National University, thinks the quake could last up to 60 seconds, causing wreckage on the peninsula, rippling further into a damage radius of about 25 miles and possibly launching a minor tsunami at Costa Rica's Pacific coast.

"This is going to be a large earthquake. It's going to produce damage. People have to be ready," Protti said.

Like with California's predicted Big One, Costa Rica has heard warnings about a possible Nicoya earthquake since about a decade ago, when scientists pointed out a 50-year pattern Nicoya has tended to follow — devastating earthquakes occurred there in 1853, 1900 and 1950. Now, following a string of other natural disasters across the country, emergency officials appear to be heeding the warning. A more cohesive national disaster management plan is finally on the drawing board after the response to the 6.1-magnitude January earthquake generated a storm of criticism.

This month, the National Emergency Commission opened the floor for a public consultation process, seeking input from 150 public and private institutions across various sectors of Costa Rican society to draft an integral national disaster management strategy.

The plan is broad in scope, aiming not only to heighten relief efforts and medical preparedness but also to tackle some of the country's greatest obstacles, including deteriorating roads and other infrastructure and poverty.

January's Cinchona earthquake — as it was named, after a town near the epicenter that was utterly wiped off the map — killed as many as 30 people and forced another 3,000 to flee their homes. In July, the governmental Rebuilding Commission estimated that the total cost of the wreckage hovers at about half a billion dollars.

In the aftermath, many residents and media outlets blamed the government for what they considered a flawed response. The United States and Colombia had to provide rescue helicopters because Costa Rica didn't have enough, and even that didn’t happen until two days after the quake, when many victims were already believed dead.

But Cinchona also exposed fault lines of another sort: many people were buried by landslides and by toppled buildings. Many homes, businesses and roads were unstable or had been built in areas unsuitable for construction.