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Learning from Chile's earthquake

In the early morning darkness of February 27, deep under the South Pacific, the earth shook so violently, it knocked the entire planet off its axis by some 8 centimetres. So violently, NASA reported that days were shortened by a fraction of a second and seismologists the world over took notice.

After all, at 8.8 on the Richter scale, this earthquake off the coast of Chile was hundreds of times more powerful than the 7.3 tremor that hit Haiti just weeks earlier. More than 200,000 Haitians died in that disaster. Entire neighbourhoods were flattened and more than a million people were left homeless.

The impact in Chile was far milder. Five hundred people were killed and several fishing villages were badly damaged by the tsunami the quake caused. But in the largest city in the region, Concepcion, most skyscrapers were left standing, hospitals continued to treat the wounded, and damage was moderate. The country's strict building code, implemented after several devastating earthquakes over the past decades, was credited with saving lives and property.

The conclusion: developed countries with smart construction standards have little to fear. Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles would survive relatively unscathed, despite being close to fault lines that can easily trigger quakes more powerful than Chile's.

Or would they?

Beyond the broken windows of tall buildings still standing, experts are taking a closer look, and what they see is worrying them. Prospects along Canada's west coast may not be so rosy. The green glass condos that line False Creek may not be as safe as they may seem, if and when the 'Big One' hits.

Why?  I'm on my way to Concepcion to find out.

Follow Sasa's trip to Chile's earthquake zone on Twitter @sasapetricic
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