Chile Earthquake: Strict Building Rules May Keep Death Toll Low

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

Strict building regulations enforced due to Chile's history of violent seismology have been credited with minimizing the death toll in the wake of Tuesday's magnitude-8.2 earthquake.

"The area has hit by many quakes in the past so this event is nothing new for them," said Randy Baldwin, a Denver-based geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "Maybe the reports of falling debris are due to some previously weakened buildings being destroyed, but other than that Chile does a very good job of enforcing building codes."

Residents stay on the top floor of their building during a vertical evacuation in Iquique on Tuesday.Cristian Vivero / Reuters

The importance of solid structures was displayed in Jan. 2010 when Port-au-Prince was hit by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake that leveled 70 percent of the Haitian capital's structures and killed 220,000 people.

Just a month later, a magnitude-8.8 quake hit Chile but killed far fewer people, with the death toll reaching around 500.

By early Wednesday, the latest quake had killed just six people.

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reductionreleased a report in 2011 saying that the "strict building codes in Chile...continue to play a large part in protecting people." Haiti's quake, on the other hand, was "no match for the homes and buildings," it said.

"The key to surviving high magnitude quakes is to live and work in seismically safe buildings, while being aware of how nature around us can also change," said Margareta Wahlstrom, U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, in the report.

Chile's history is peppered with strong tremors, but the event that prompted its strict construction regulations was the devastating magnitude-9.5 quake of 1960 - the most powerful earthquake ever recorded.

Although Tuesday's quake was at a shallow - and potentially damaging - 12.5 miles below the seabed, Baldwin said other factors could have dampened its effects, such as the direction of the waves and the distance of the epicenter from populated areas.