500 years of earthquake history: how academia and government are collaborating to reduce earthquake risk in the Dominican Republic?

3 Nov

500 years of earthquake history: how academia and government are collaborating to reduce earthquake risk in the Dominican Republic?

500 years of earthquake history: how academia and government are collaborating to reduce earthquake risk in the Dominican Republic?

By Ashley Morales-Cartagena, MSc

The Dominican Republic (DR) is considered a hotspot for disasters resulting from natural hazards. According to the World Bank from 1980 to 2008 disasters affected 2.65 million people in the DR. We have learned from more frequent hydro-meteorological disasters, however, earthquakes have been less frequent, and there is no ‘culture of preparedness’ for earthquakes.

While the scientific community has long anticipated the “Big One”, the seismic risk has not been adequately communicated to the public. It is up to the emerging generation of leaders in risk reduction and mitigation to ensure the country’s resilience to future earthquakes. Academia, industry, and civic organizations are working to identify ways to help build an earthquake-resilient country. In this blog post, I will discuss seismicity and the risk profile in the DR, prior and ongoing work to understand and reduce earthquake risk, and academic-government organizations tackling the challenges of communicating and reducing earthquake risk.

1. Seismic Hazard of the Dominican Republic

The DR is a country located on the island of La Hispaniola, which it shares with the Republic of Haiti, in the Greater Antilles of the Caribbean. It occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island. It has witnessed destruction from natural hazards, due to its exposure to recurrent phenomena of hydro-meteorological and, less frequently, earthquakes.

La Hispaniola is located within a seismically active region, characterized mainly by the interaction of the North America Plate with the Caribbean Plate. The interaction of these two plates is characterized by a sinistral transcurrent component in the northwestern part of the boundary, which extends from the Yucatan block to the Lesser Antilles, and a component of subduction in its eastern part, causing a complex zone of deformation, with relative movements of 21-25 mm/year (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Tectonic setting of the Caribbean (Courtesy: National Science Foundation/ Eric Calais, Purdue University)

The country has several active fault systems with the potential to generate large-scale earthquakes, notably the Septentrional fault, the Camú fault, the Enriquillo fault, the San Juan-Ocoa, and the Hispaniola fault. The Septentrional is a left-lateral strike-slip fault that is known to be the main North America – Caribbean plate boundary, representing a big threat to DR’s north region. It is located in a densely populated area, the Cibao Valley, which includes the second most economically important city, Santiago. Los Muertos Trench is the source of the highest hazard for Santo Domingo, DR’s capital. The Enriquillo-Plantain Garden Fault Zone contributes greatly to the hazard in the southwest region of the country.


Figure 2. Major tectonic faults of the Dominican Republic (modified from MOPC, 2011)

On the Island, significant seismic events have been recorded in the years 1562, 1615, 1673, 1691, 1775, 1842, 1843, 1887, 1946, 1953, 2003, 2010, with the most significant occurring in 1946. The M8.1 Bahia Escocesa earthquake on August 4th, 1946 caused widespread damage across the country and generated a tsunami that inundated the community of Matancitas in the province María Trinidad Sánchez.


2. Local Context: Dominican Seismic Risk Reality

The limited government efforts in seismic risk reduction and mitigation result, among many reasons, from the lack of awareness of the local population to their seismic exposure and vulnerability, which in many cases were tied to “luck” or “misinformation.” For example, the destructive Bahia Escocesa earthquake occurred during a dictatorship, and historians believe that reports about earthquake damage were suppressed, as communications were supposedly controlled by the autocrat. The population was not informed of the destruction caused by the earthquake and there is scant institutional memory.

More recently, the 2003 M6.5 Puerto Plata earthquake caused the collapse of one public school and severely damaged many other school buildings. This earthquake occurred at 12:45 AM local time, so there were no fatalities related in the schools. Despite this recent earthquake, Dominicans are not aware of the high likelihood that a destructive earthquake will occur in the country.

Vulnerability is a driving component of risk in the DR. The Dominican Republic has great challenges in terms of building design, construction, and supervision as well as land planning and use. A large proportion of infrastructure has been built without a seismic code or a code at all. This problem is accentuated by informal construction in vulnerable and densely populated areas as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Infrastructure scenarios of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Photos a,b,c source: Diario Libre.


While earthquake risk mitigation has not been a priority for the Dominican government for many decades, certain measures have been taken recently. There are institutions and disaster risk reduction practices that exist to protect Dominican communities from natural hazards. Following the 2010, after the M7.0 Haitian earthquake in the neighboring country, Haiti, local Dominican regulations were enhanced, made more stringent, and earthquake safety initiatives have increased.


3. Government Regulations

In 1979, the first regulation on seismic analysis and design was enacted, however, it was a non-mandatory policy, meant to only be provisional guidance. This criterion governed structural design until recently. In 2011, the first mandatory code for seismic analysis and design of structures was approved by the Ministry of Public Works (MOPC). As a result, only structures designed after 2011 required seismic design. The country was divided into seismic zones, similar to how seismic hazard has been handled in much of Latin America: Zone I with high seismicity and Zone II with moderate seismicity (Figure 4). The seismic vulnerability of structures in the DR are thus classified as follows: built before 1979, from 1979 to 2011 and after 2011.

Figure 4. Current seismic hazard zonation in the DR seismic code R-001 (MOPC, 2011)

In response to the seismic vulnerability of the Dominican Republic, stemming from the lack of seismic codes and lack of building code enforcement, a new institution was created by decree 715-01 in 2001. The Oficina Nacional de Evaluación Sísmica y Vulnerabilidad de Infraestructuras y Edificaciones (ONESVIE) – National Bureau of Seismic Evaluation and Vulnerability of Infrastructure and Buildings -was created to identify high seismic zones and to evaluate the seismic vulnerability of private and public infrastructure of the Dominican Republic, as well as to propose the retrofit of vulnerable structures. This entity is charged with advising the President on measures to reduce the seismic risk in the country and to create awareness of seismic risk. From its conception, it has evaluated over 6000 buildings (mostly public schools and hospitals), designed the retrofit of over 100 structures, and identified areas for public investment in risk reduction. Funding for the execution of the retrofits, however, is a goal for the government in the coming decades.

In 2001, the Emergency Operations Center (COE, Centro de Operaciones de Emergencias) was created with the decree 360-01. The COE’s purpose is to manage emergency situations and disasters and be responsible for planning and coordinating the operations between different agencies, jurisdictions, and functions of institutions during an emergency. This is the official organization that responds after disasters and serves to support regional operations if there is a disaster in other Caribbean and Central America countries. In case of an earthquake, COE and ONESVIE deploy teams to evaluate the damage.

In 2002, Disaster Risk Management Law (Law 147-02) was enacted. This law gave the government the power to regulate the preparedness of government agencies and ministries for disasters. It also created Prevention, Mitigation and Response Committees in each municipality to support preparedness actions taken in the country. The Law was mostly focused on hydrometeorological hazards but also applied to earthquakes.


4. Engaging students and academia to promote awareness of seismic risk

Opportunities in academia to help build resilience and directly contribute to earthquake risk reduction depend largely on the availability of resources to fund research. In many developing countries, such resources are limited or non-existent. Additionally, the lack of specialists, doctoral programs, and tenure-track professorships, introduces complexity to this challenge. However, international partnerships and collaborations could help advance efforts to explore opportunities to advance earthquake risk reduction practices in academia.

The Dominican Republic has identified ways to mitigate these challenges through capacity building efforts and international partnerships. In fact, undergraduate students can be easily trained in tools such as FEMA P-154 Rapid Visual Screening of Buildings for Potential Seismic Hazards, EERI’s Virtual Earthquake Reconnaissance Team, and the Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) from United Nations Development Programme UNDP. Thanks to these knowledge and skill-building activities, trained students were the first onsite to volunteer as evaluators for reconnaissance activities following recent earthquakes in the Dominican Republic and internationally.

With initiatives such as establishing EERI chapters, students can be motivated and engaged in earthquake risk reduction programs for longer periods. For example, students from the Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra (PUCMM) EERI Student Chapter have led small reconnaissance pilots after moderate earthquakes that have occurred in the past years in the Dominican Republic (Figure 5), and have also visited local schools to train children on how to prepare, respond and recover after earthquakes. Although creating this chapter was quite a challenge for me, as a young academic, because there were no previous similar experiences at the university, it became a great asset in the community and four years later, we keep growing.

Figure 5. Students from the EERI PUCMM chapter on a reconnaissance mission after M5.8 (2018) Villa Elisa, Earthquake.

Similarly, students have pioneered independent studies that have become research projects in collaboration with government agencies, civic society organizations, and consulting professionals. Through this experience, leading researchers have learned about the importance of engaging with a diverse group of stakeholders, but more importantly about the role of research towards the advancement of risk reduction efforts.

After learning from other countries’ successful experiences with research centers such as CIGIDEN in Chile and QuakeCORE in New Zealand, I decided to create a similar program in the Dominican Republic to contribute to the national goals of disaster risk reduction and resilience. A space where government agencies, civil society organizations, and academic institutions can converge and together work under a neutral umbrella ensures the continuity of projects, regardless of institutional changes, and leverages the scarcity of resources allocated for these topics.

The Resilience and Multi-Hazard Risk Research Center (Centro de Investigación de Resiliencia y Riesgos Multi-Amenaza – CIRRMA) within the Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra (PUCMM) was created to allow more research opportunities and engage students, professionals, and research specialists to help build resilience in the country. This Center was launched in February of 2020 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

CIRRMA’s main objective is to generate scientific knowledge and promote and transfer its application for disaster risk reduction from the national to the local level. The Center aims to serve from a multi-disciplinary approach in the phases of preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation for natural events. CIRRMA is founded in three main pillars: research, education, and extension for the community. The main collaborators of the Center are the Dominican Geological Survey (SGN), the National Bureau of Seismic Evaluation (ONESVIE), the Dominican Society of Earthquake Engineering and Seismology (SODOSISMICA) and representatives from the civil society. Other local and international collaborators are in the process of incorporating formally to CIRRMA. Although COVID-19 has delayed some plans for the Center, many efforts are being made to have a larger presence in civil society and to enhance the development of public-private partnerships for disaster risk reduction in the country.

This center is one of the ways government and academia can merge to reduce earthquake risk in the Dominican Republic. There is a long path to walk to achieve our “big goal,” but these steps can help us create the foundation for a safer future in countries like mine.


5. Conclusions

Earthquake hazard of the Dominican Republic is well-known by the scientific community, yet, in my opinion, the country needs to take big steps to reduce the vulnerability, thus, the risk. As a young professional having a life goal, to reduce earthquake risk in my country and prevent lives’ losses when the big one occurs, I found that with academia I could start building capacities that will provide the tools that make the Dominican Republic more resilient to these events. Thanks to EERI, I have been exposed to opportunities and tools that are helping me to put my grain of sand in the DR. Experiences as the LFE Travel Study Program, having developed the first EERI Student Chapter and forming a community of students and professionals advocating for earthquake safety, research projects thanks to networking done at the Annual Meetings, are having this story like the result.

Younger Members Committee