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