Case Study: Earthquake in Peru, How Subverting Adaptations Led to Disaster


Are disasters extreme events or products of underdevelopment which force people to adapt to social and economic conditions beyond their control? After the Peruvian earthquake on May 31, 1970, the American first lady’s remark that the US would help victims until everything was “just rosy again,” exemplifies the belief that disaster is an extreme event. It demonstrates a lack of recognition that the destruction and misery in Peru were as much a product of historic underdevelopment as they were of the earthquake.

Pre-Columbian adaptations can be grouped into five basic patterns:

1. Control of multiple ecological tiers spread risk and resources.
2. Dispersed settlement patterns avoided areas of high seismic activity.
3. Environmentally appropriate building materials and techniques such as thatched roofs and thin walls of modest height minimized casualties.
4. A large number of storehouses for surpluses and emergency use demonstrates preparedness.
5. Empirical knowledge of hazards and hazard mitigation is seen in the ideology of its people.

Archaeological evidence suggests that these adaptations were successful. In spite of natural disasters such as floods, volcanic eruptions, droughts and earthquakes, large-scale damage and mortality is very scant.

After the Spanish conquest, subversion of adaptations exposed the Peruvians to greater risks. For example, the Spaniards ignored pre-Columbian experience and settled the city of Arequipa in 1540. While the city was blessed with fertile soils it was located in one of the most seismically active regions. Further, the nearby snow-capped mountains were volcanically active. In the seventeenth century alone, the city suffered partial or total destruction by four earthquakes and a volcanic eruption. The Spanish drained surplus which hurt disaster preparedness. Spanish building techniques and settlement design favored ceramic roof tile and grid-packed houses which increased the likelihood that any significant earthquake would become a disaster.


The 1970 earthquake affected an area of 83,000 square kilometers (about the size of Belgium and Holland combined), killed 70,000 people, injured 140,000 people, and destroyed or damaged more than 160,000 buildings, representing 80% of the structures in the area. Over 500,000 were left homeless. The high mortality rate was due largely to settlement location, settlement plan, and building techniques and materials. Avalanches obliterated cities near the mountains. Untied exterior walls of buildings collapsed under weight of tile roofs, burying people trying to escape.

Adequate only for routine maladies, the pre-disaster health care system was largely accessible only to the urban middle classes and elites. All hospitals were rendered inoperative after the quake and all long-term care had to be handled outside of the region. The fragile infrastructure was of roads, railroads, airports, and communication was completely incapacitated. The airport had to be repaired before aircraft carrying assistance could land, creating a bottleneck in aid that further exacerbated the situation. Archaic bureaucratic design also hampered aid.


The poor distribution of aid gave rise to the saying, “First the earthquake, then the disaster.” Indeed, Peru’s architectural, economic, and sociopolitical processes allowed the earthquake to become a disaster. These processes ultimately subverted the generally effective adaptations to the many environmental hazards worked out by the people and cultures of the Andes over ten thousand years of human existence. Thus, the vulnerability that still exists in the region is a socially created phenomena, a historical product brought into being by identifiable forces.


Acknowledging population concentrations in urban environments, what kinds of adaptations can we implement to better distribute and mitigate the damage during an earthquake? How can the accumulation of surplus relief supplies better prepare the people for future earthquakes? How can we remove bottlenecks to aid? What social interventions can we imagine to prevent an earthquake from turning into a disaster?

Oliver-Smith, Anthony, and Susannah M. Hoffman. The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective. New York: Routledge, 1999. 74-88. Print.

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