The fact that a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti on Tuesday didn't surprise Robert Yeats, a professor emeritus in geoscience at Oregon State University.
In an interview conducted Jan. 6 with Scientific American magazine, Yeats identified Haiti as a high-risk area for a catastrophe such as Tuesday's. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died because of the earthquake.
"What surprised me most wasn't that it happened," Yeats said by phone Thursday morning. "But that it happened when it did. I didn't expect it this soon."
Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, lies on a large fault known as the Enriqullio-Plaintain Garden Fault, but Yeats said the country's poverty and social structure put it at increased risk of catastrophe. Yeats said buildings in Haiti aren't built up to same standards as those in the United States and that emergency response services are lagging in Haiti.
"Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world," Yeats said. "People are making two dollars per day. They aren't worried about reinforcing their houses, they are simply trying to survive."
However, Yeats refused to blame the Haitian government. He saved his harshest criticism for practices such as deforestation. He said that many trees have been cleared from the hillsides in Haiti, increasing the likelihood of landslides.
"I haven't seen the figures, yet," Yeats said. "But I suspect a lot of the deaths were caused by landslides."
Yeats said other areas of concern include Kingston, Jamaica; Tehran, Iran; and Istanbul, Turkey. He said those cities also are on large faults and their building structures are vulnerable as well.
However, Yeats said, it's hard to convince political leaders to take action because geologists can't answer the big question the leaders want answered.
"We don't know when earthquakes are going to happen," Yeats said. "That's what they want to know. It's possible the earthquake might not happen in their lifetime, and their focus is on the present."
Yeats was preparing to fly to Japan on Thursday morning, where he will spend two weeks in Kobe. Jan. 17 marks the 15th anniversary of the Kobe earthquake, which claimed more than 6,400 lives.