Why don’t people leave earthquake zones?

Graeme Woods, filling in for Andrew Sullivan, writes this today:

After Bam, all Iranians had a fresh reminder that the Big One would hit Tehran soon enough. Which made me wonder: why does anyone still live there? Why not consider moving to a less seismically precarious place, or at least to more durable housing? I never got a satisfactory answer, although one hotel clerk did say offhandedly that Iranians were familiar with the experience of being promised big changes — positive or negative — and that the threat of an earthquake sounded a lot like yet another vision of change that would be infinitely postponed.

I doubt it’s anything so philosophical as that. Iran is like any country: moving is expensive. Why don’t people pick up and move to sturdier housing? Because rebar costs money. Why don’t Tehranian citizens choose to move to a safer area? Probably because they’re in Tehran for a reason: a job, a family. It’s not that people won’t move; it’s that people can’t move.

Arguments like this came up again and again after Katrina — why didn’t people just leave? They knew the hurricane was coming, why didn’t they go far away? More than that, why does anyone live in New Orleans? Well, for the same reasons people live in Tehran, above an earthquake-prone fault, in rickety housing that won’t survive the first tremor. It’s their home. Whether it’s ideal or not, it’s where they live. For some, a home on a fault line is all they have. And human beings have a history of making homes wherever they can, and, once landed, sticking to them with every fiber of their beings. This is equally true in Louisiana and Iran.

Beyond all of this, it’s hardly ever practical to expect disaster preparation to happen on a micro level, particularly when dealing with a community without great access to resources or power. If you give a woman a choice between living above an invisible fault line that could — either today or a hundred years from now — cause a massive earthquake that will flatten her house, or leaving that place right now and certainly starving, which choice will she take every time?

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