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close this bookDisasters: Preparedness and Mitigation - Issue No. 017 - October, 1983 (PAHO; 1983; 8 pages) [ES]
View the documentColombia: The earthquake in Popayán
View the documentDisaster preparedness in the schools of public health
View the documentLetters from our readers
View the documentWHO and other agencies
View the documentUpcoming country meetings and courses
View the documentMember countries
View the documentDroughts and their potential effects
View the documentReview of publications
View the documentSelected bibliography

Colombia: The earthquake in Popayán

Dr. M. Gueri, PAHO Subregional Adviser on Emergency Preparedness

On 31 March 1983, at 8:15 in the morning, the city of Popayán, capital of the Department of Cauca, Colombia, suffered an earthquake registering 5.5 on the Richter scale.

Colombia: The earthquake in Popayán

Popayán, with 115,000 inhabitants, is a city of typically colonial architecture. A great number of buildings are old, many of them of adobe, with little or no reinforcement. Seventy percent of the buildings suffered major or minor damage. Two thousand five hundred dwellings (12% of the total) were completely destroyed and 6,680 (34%) were severely damaged. Since the earthquake occurred while services were being held for Holy Friday, and the Cathedral suffered serious damage, 25% of all the deaths caused by the earthquake occurred there. Areas in the vicinity of Popayán, were also seriously affected.

It is important to note that not only old buildings, but many new ones presumably built according to antiseismic standards, were also damaged or destroyed. We found that the reason was that the designs were only antiseismic in theory. In practice, the construction was careless. When, for instance, plans called for a 3 meter-long steel bar to reinforce the concrete, two 1.5 meter bars were used instead and joined by a thin wire in the middle. Naturally, when the earthquake occurred, that is where the bars gave way.

Immediately after the earthquake an emergency committee was formed with representatives from several agencies under the chairmanship of the Governor of the Department of Cauca.

Relief activities were initiated immediately; within the first three or four hours medical reinforcements arrived from the university hospital of Cali, which provided support for the San José Hospital in Popayán. Despite this, and the assistance of the Red Cross, the Social Security Institute, and other agencies, the health services were overwhelmed by the large number of injured, so much so that there is no information on most of the cases that were treated and sent home.

This is a serious problem that should be foreseen and prevented in the future. We believe that the solution may be to assign a volunteer recorder to accompany each physician, paramedic, nurse, etc., whose sole responsibility will be to take down the basic data on each person attended: sex, age, diagnosis, and treatment. These data, however simple, are invaluable to future planning.

Up to now the information available on injuries in Popayán, refers only to the severely wounded who were interned in the San José hospital or referred to the university hospital in Cali (228 cases) and to the dead (102). Considering the extent of the destruction of buildings, the number of dead and wounded is surprisingly small, probably because the large majority of the population was awake and going about their business, many of them in the streets. The clinical histories and the death certificates of the cases not treated in a health center are being analyzed and will be the subject of a detailed report.

As has been the experience in other earthquakes, the demand for immediate medical care declined after 8-10 hours. In fact, by 5 o'clock in the afternoon all the cases had been sent to Cali that were to be transferred- many of them in private planes, thanks to the collaboration of the Aeroclub. Others were taken by road.

After the immediate problems of assistance to the victims and rescue of the injured were taken care of, the population began to recover their belongings from the rubble and to recover building material that could be used again. Soon camps were established for those who had been left homeless, "community stewpots" were cooked, and food was distributed. A large number of field tents were distributed among the population-perhaps too many, because it is more practical and sanitary to use such local materials as wood and bamboo for the construction of temporary shelters. Many of these tents were erected on the foundation where a home had existed, or in the patio of one that was half-destroyed, so that the owners could keep an eye on their belongings.

Some of the measures taken were unnecessary, such as putting lime on the graves that the earthquake had opened. In the main cemetery spraying with insecticide was necessary, because the opening of many graves caused a mass emigration of roaches.


Once again drugs were donated that served no purpose whatsoever during the disaster: unsorted products of doubtful use or no use at all, plasma, serum, and blood which for the most part were not used (it will be remembered that there were only 228 injured who were in sufficiently serious condition to be hospitalized).

Once again it was seen that large magnitude disasters are not accompanied by epidemics: epidemiological surveillance has demonstrated that there was no marked increase in communicable diseases. There were no large problems of water supply or sewerage, and the water samples studied for unusual bacterial content produced negative results.

The fundamental problem that Popayán, faces is that of relocating approximately 3,000 families that are living in 21 camps and 25 temporary settlements (to this should be added the families occupying temporary shelters, not in groups). The large majority of the settlements that we have visited are found to be in good condition from the standpoint of environmental sanitation, with running water from spigots, and an average of one latrine installed for every two or three families.

Today, some months after the earthquake, Popayán, looks like a city that was bombed. Now it is difficult to tell the buildings totally destroyed by the earthquake from those only half-destroyed and which have to be torn down because they are potentially dangerous.

The health problems are no greater than those that might have been expected under normal conditions perhaps the dust from the demolition has caused a greater incidence in respiratory diseases and ocular disorders. Soon after the earthquake, an increase was observed in the number of reported cases of animal bites (especially dogs). We do not know if this represents a true increase in the number of bites or simply an increase in reporting. No cases of rabies have been detected.

In addition, one can observe all kinds of temporary shelters: tents and shelters made of zinc-both very impractical, because they lack suitable ventilation and in the course of the day turn into unbearably hot ovens. It would seem much more practical for the shelters to have been made of wood or local materials, such as guadua (a species of bamboo). There are shelters made of plasticized pasteboard and prefabricated concrete, and there could not fail to be shelters made with leftover building materials: old boxes, plastic sheets, and any product humanly imaginable.

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