Preparing for the Big One

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.

Flanked by at least three tectonic plates, Costa Rica is considered one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world; homes need to be built on firm ground to handle at least a rattle. Yet, according to Protti, despite Costa Rica's seismic building codes, older buildings and especially homes erected in poor rural areas frequently lack basic, earthquake-safe materials such as rebar.

After observing the Jan. 8 quake, one local emergency committee set about counting inhabitants and collecting data on special health needs for ailments such as diabetes and heart conditions. "During Cinchona, many people must have died that nobody heard about," speculated the committee's president, Gerardo Brenes, 56.

His Tourism Community Emergency Committee formed after an August 2007 warning alert for a tsunami — which never hit — rattled the region. "We had the experience of a massive evacuation," Brenes said.

It occurred to Brenes that all the towns in the region need to involve hotels, hospitals and businesses from every sector to practice a coordinated emergency response, and cannot count on relief from San Jose — or Colombia or U.S. Southern Command, as was the case with Cinchona — to arrive in time.

Brenes pointed out that some of the towns worst hit by January's quake were entirely isolated because the one roadway out had crumbled or was blocked by landslides. He said the committee is studying systems of safeguarding those vital exits, with such techniques as terracing and reinforcing the hills along roads that are most prone to landslides. Meanwhile, the 64-year-old subsistence farmer, Baltodano, fears that her neighbors are not sufficiently prepared. She said she doubts any of her community's homes are built to withstand disasters.

Like a handful of locals in the villages that lie in the projected quake's path, Baltodano, leader of Barrio Hotel's volunteer emergency committee, is working hard to raise the level of awareness and preparedness in her community in the face of a possible disaster. She said the committee organizes evacuation drills, in which the townspeople seek safety at the community meeting hall. However it's difficult to keep them from letting their guard down.

But despite warnings and awareness raising projects in Costa Rica's Pacific northwest, information about a possible earthquake hasn't reached all the region's inhabitants, who in many towns are made up of a mixture of locals and foreign (mainly North American and European) residents and tourists.

One 67-year-old Californian, Forrest Gaiger, runs a web optimization company, Forrestwebsites.com, and spends part of the year at a beach house on the Nicoya Peninsula. Gaiger said the house is a sturdy two-stories, but expects a quake of the predicted magnitude could still do some damage.

"I didn't know everybody was talking about earthquakes!" he exclaimed.

Map showing the tectonic plates of Central America. Costa Rica is flanked by at least three plates: the Cocos plate, the Caribbean plate and the Nazca plate. (Courtesy OVSICORI-UNA)