The List

The Next Big Quake?

Haiti's devastating earthquake -- and its horrific human toll -- caught many by surprise. But there are more little-noticed hot seismic hot spots across the globe. Here are five places that geologists worry could be the next big one.


Fault Line: New Madrid

Last big quake: 1812

Reasons to worry: A string of earthquakes in the early 19th century along the New Madrid fault -- covering parts of Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi -- caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards, rang church bells in Boston, and affected an area more than three times as large as the famous San Francisco quake of 1906.

Two hundred years ago, the at-risk population was minimal. Today, the major cities of Saint Louis and Memphis lie within the danger zone of arguably the United State's most threatening fault line. FEMA warned in 2008 that a major New Madrid fault earthquake could cause "the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States," largely due to a relative lack of earthquake preparation compared with California and the Pacific Northwest.


Fault line: North Anatolian

Last big quake: Duzce, 1999

Reasons to worry: The 1999 earthquake in Izmit -- located off the Sea of Marmara, and just southeast of Istanbul -- killed nearly 18,000 people. Izmit was the latest in a series of quakes that struck westward across Turkey over the last 70 years. A quake only three months later in Duzce killed close to 900. In the last four decades, Turkey has suffered more than six earthquakes with more than 1,000 fatalities.

More frighteningly, scientists say the next quake is likely to break slightly west of Izmit -- and directly south of Istanbul, a city of 12 million people. The seismic buildup is likely to result in a few smaller events, rather than a single mega earthquake -- but that's little comfort to the residents one of the world's oldest and most historically important cities.


Fault line: in between the Pacific, Philippine, and Eurasian plates

Last big quake: Newcastle, 1989

Reasons to worry: Unlike the other countries on this list, Australia does not actually lie along a fault line between two tectonic plates -- that is, it's an intraplate location, which is hardly cause for comfort. Australia's seismic activity is the result of plate pressure far from the continent itself, which means that literally any part of Australia is under potential threat and the country's quakes are extremely difficult to predict.

Luckily, most Australian quakes, including 10 in 2008 with a magnitude greater than 4.0, have struck in the barren center of the country, causing minimal damage. But the unpredictability of seismic bursts has led to a false sense of security -- building materials in major cities like Sydney are old, corroded, and vulnerable, as evidenced a by relatively minor 5.5 magnitude 1989 Newcastle earthquake that caused more than U.S. $1.4 billion in damage. A quake near Sydney, which has a population 15 times greater than Newcastle, would be far more deadly.


Fault line: Himalayan Frontal Thrust, Main Boundary Thrust, Main Central Thrust

Last big quake: 1988, Nepal-India border region

Reasons to worry: Just south of the Himalaya Range, and only 150 miles southwest of Mt. Everest, the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu is right on the border between the Indian and Eurasian plates. Despite there being no major earthquakes in the area in recent years, geologists warn that the numerous faults along the Himalayas put the Nepalese capital at risk of a massive seismic event.

Worse, Nepal's earthquake preparedness is dismally low, thanks to poor construction methods and a rapidly increasing urban population. The lack of recent earthquake activity is actually another cause for concern -- typically, the longer the length between quakes, the more likely the next one will be especially powerful. Like Haiti, Nepal has been wracked by recent political turmoil. A 10-year civil war ended in 2006, and political stability and economic development since then have been minimal, hampering the authorities' ability to prepare for a natural disaster.


Fault line: Median Tectonic, Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic, Tanakura Tectonic

Last big quake: Great Hanshin-Awaji, 1995

Reasons to worry: Japan is a more well-known earthquake spot due to catastrophic events like the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake, which killed 6,400 people. Luckily, Japan's experience with earthquakes has led it to invest significantly in preparedness and quake-resistant infrastructure, but this should not lead to a false sense of security.

Japan remains at risk because of its extremely densely packed cities -- if a big quake were to directly hit megacities like Tokyo or Kyoto, studies show that casualties could potentially kill upwards of 60,000. The Great Kanto quake of 1923 killed well over 100,000. Furthermore, earthquake activity off the coast of Japan leaves the country vulnerable to tsunamis. Japan's heavy reliance on nuclear power is another cause for concern, particularly after a 2007 quake caused a dangerous leak at a plant in Kashiwazaki.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images; Brendon Thorne/Getty Images; PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images; JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images

The List

The Unluckiest Country

The second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere has been wracked by coups, dictators, and foreign interventions throughout nearly its entire history. But you don't have to agree with Pat Robertson to agree that even by Haitian standards, the last few decades have been particularly tragic.

The Duvalier Dictatorship

Years: 1957-1986

The catastrophe: After a period of instability in the mid-20th century following a bloody war with the Dominican Republic and the temporary U.S. military occupation of the island, Haiti had a glimmer of hope when François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a popular health minister, was elected president (in a military-rigged election). But Duvalier was not exactly the humanitarian ruler Haitians had hoped for. Duvalier quickly set about consolidating his power over the state and security services, enriching himself and his cronies through bribery and extortion, and building his own personality cult. He lined his coffers with millions in U.S. aid money during his early years in power. An estimated 30,000 Haitians were killed during Duvalier's reign of terror and many more fled into exile.

After his death in 1971, he was succeeded by his 19-year-old son Jean-Claude, known as "Baby Doc." After continuing his father's policies of repression and corruption, Baby Doc finally abdicated and fled the country under pressure from the Reagan administration in 1986. But the Duvalier dynasty left Haiti with a legacy of corruption and poverty from which it has never recovered.

AFP/Getty Images

The First Aristide Crisis

Year: 1991

The catastrophe: In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected in what was considered Haiti's first fair election. A former priest who had helped lead the opposition to the Duvalier regime, Aristide seemed a natural choice to help the country regain its footing. But the country's experiment in democracy was to be short-lived. Aristide was overthrown in a military coup just a few months later and forced into exile. Over 1,500 people were killed. Thousands of refugees fled to the United States in rickety boats, prompting President George H.W. Bush to enact a blockade against the country.

In 1994, the United Nations authorized the use of force to remove the military dictatorship, and the United States took the lead in forming a multinational military to enforce the mandate. Twenty-thousand military personnel landed unopposed, returning Aristide to power.


The Second Aristide Crisis

Year: 2004

The catastrophe: Aristide was legally barred from running for president again in 1995, but he returned to power five years later in what was widely considered a fraudulent election, losing much of his international support in the process. The first military coup attempt happened only a year later. Frustration over Aristide's election grew into increasingly violent protests from 2000 to 2003.

In February 2004, a rebel group calling itself the National Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Haiti, comprised of ex-military officers including several notorious Duvalier-era figures, captured Gonaives, Haiti's fourth-largest city, and began advancing toward the capital. Although the United States had helped Aristide return to power after his last ouster, the George W. Bush administration remained neutral this time, blaming Aristide's years of corruption for the rebellion. Aristide fled Haiti in late February, blaming U.S. pressure for forcing him from power.

Shortly after the coup, the United Nations authorized a atabilization mission in Haiti, including a military peacekeeping force led by the Brazilian military. Despite the presence of the blue helmets, however, political violence, extrajudicial killings, and arrests of opposition members continued under the interim government.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images  

The Floods

Year: 2004

The catastrophe: As if the political turmoil weren't bad enough, nature struck Haiti in 2004 to devastating effect. Just one month after the coup, flash floods hit the Haitian-Dominican  border, leaving more than 1,600 dead. Then in September, Hurricane Jeanne decimated Gonaives, leaving more than 3,000 dead. The interim government was almost entirely bankrupt and unable to effectively respond.

The flooding was further exacerbated by deforestation. Because of poor environmental management and poverty, more than 98 percent of the country's forestland land had been cleared, eliminating the topsoil that could have held the water. The 8,000 strong U.N. peacekeeping force, which had been intended to help Haiti form a government, struggled to cope with the humanitarian disaster. The U.S. military, controversially, halted the delivery of aid during the first set of floods because of a lack of resources.



Year: 2008

The catastrophe: A small measure of political stability was restored with the election of President René Préval in 2005, but the calm didn't last. By 2008, 80 percent of Haitians lived on less than $2 per day, and the country found itself in the grips of a food crisis. The international media shocked readers with reports of Haitians making cookies out of packed dirt.

In April, after the price of rice doubled over the course of six months, protesters descended on Port-au-Prince to demand that the government either take steps to lower the cost of living or step down. Protesters built barricades and tried to use garbage cans as battering rams to break their way into the national palace. Caught between the mob and the government they were charged with stabilizing, U.N. peacekeepers fired rubber bullets into the crowd. One protester told Reuters, "If the police and U.N. troops want to shoot at us, that's OK, because in the end if we are not killed by bullets we'll die of hunger." In the end, the government survived the crisis, but its credibility was sunk, and the desperation of Haiti's people continued.

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images  


Year: 2008

The catastrophe: In the fall of 2008, Haiti was hit by hurricanes, and Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike in the space of a month, leaving more than 800 dead and more than a million homeless. The long-suffering city of Gonaives again took the brunt of the devastation. It was rendered largely uninhabitable, and government ministers said much of it would simply have to be moved. Sixty percent of the starving country's harvest was destroyed, and the debris was still being cleared this year.

While other countries in the region, including the Dominican Republic and Cuba, were hit almost as badly by the storms, Haiti's death toll was nearly 10 times higher because of environmental degradation that exacerbated the flooding and the government's inability to respond. U.S. anthropologist and longtime Haiti activist Paul Farmer called the hurricane season an "unnatural disaster," saying that a "Marshall Plan" was needed to rebuild Haiti's political institutions or the country would "have a hard time surviving the hurricane season." But the damage unleashed this week by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake was probably more than even he could have imagined.