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March 25, 2010

Chile Earthquake Fact-Finding Mission Finds Building Codes Saved Tens of Thousands of Lives

BALTIMORE -– A fact-finding mission sent to Chile in the aftermath of the most powerful earthquake in recent history determined that Chile’s adoption of California earthquake building codes in the early 1960s likely prevented the deaths of tens of thousands of people but did not prevent the failure of communications in the nation’s healthcare system.

A research team including Rick Bissell, director of the Center for Emergency Education and Disaster Research at UMBC, toured earthquake damaged Chile March 13 to 21 under a “rapid reconnaissance” grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate the effects of earthquake building damage on health care delivery systems. The group was part of a larger team from the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute and included experts from Johns Hopkins University, FEMA, the Chilean Ministry of Health and the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile.

The team found that one of the greatest obstacles to uninterrupted healthcare delivery in the aftermath of the earthquake was the complete failure of Chile’s communications system. The nation’s highly-centralized national hospital and public health system had no way to communicate other than through ambulance VHS radio relays established by emergency responders.

“It was very critical to investigate not only why Chile’s buildings held up so much better than in Haiti and many other places, but also to see how the delivery of healthcare and operation of hospitals held up in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake,” Bissell said.

The most important factor was Chile’s adoption of, with California and Japan, earthquake building codes first developed in the 1960s, and regularly upgraded since. Chile, Japan and California are among the most active earthquake areas along the Pacific Ocean basin known as the “Pacific Ring of Fire” for its volcanic and seismic activity.

Although Chile’s earthquake damage was catastrophic, destroying many roads, bridges and the homes of 800,000 people, there were fewer than 500 deaths and 500 injuries thanks to strict building codes and the fortuitous early morning timing of the earthquake, Bissell said.

The team found that no hospital in Chile suffered complete structural failure. The government of Chile reports that of 79 affected hospitals, 54 suffered minor damage, eight suffered major damage and 17 will require a complete rebuild. All affected hospitals lost power, water and communications.

Among the team’s other findings was that Chilean hospitals -- cut off from communications with their superiors -- saved lives without using patient transfer protocols typical of emergency plans for U.S. hospitals that have been damaged. Instead of closing the hospitals and transferring all patients out, all stable patients were discharged, and remaining patients and earthquake victims were moved to undamaged parts of the hospital.

“The U.S. model is to completely evacuate a hospital if it is damaged in an earthquake. But in a major earthquake such as this, thousands of square miles could be impacted, and we need to reconsider our policy of mass patient transfer, and take a stronger look at moving patients to undamaged portions of their hospital, and making room by discharging patients who are stable enough to complete their recovery process at home.” Bissell said.

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About CEEDR

UMBC's Center for Emergency Education and Disaster Research (CEEDR) provides consulting, training, assessment, and planning services for public safety and emergency management agencies, public health agencies, and private sector organizations.

Posted by kavan at March 25, 2010 2:06 PM