Geologists warned for years that Haiti was due for a major earthquake. They just didn’t know when. And either way, there was little the impoverished country could do to prepare.

 

“The question is not whether they are aware of it, but if they can do anything about it,” said Dr. Arthur Lerner-Lam, a seismologist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “And that’s the sad thing: They simply are too poor to do much about it.”

 

Earthquakes, unlike hurricanes, are nearly impossible to see coming. In San Francisco, scientists are testing an automated alert that’s given out within seconds — if you’re lucky, tens of seconds — before an earthquake occurs.

 

That time may not sound like much, but it’s enough to shut down gas lines, turn off computers, switch stoplights to red and slow down trains. People can receive notice on e-mail and cell phones. If there’s enough warning, schools and buildings can be evacuated.

 

But in Haiti those multimillion-dollar systems are a distant dream, says Lerner-Lam. An earthquake that Haitians know might come, but not when, falls last behind concerns of poverty, political unrest and an HIV/AIDS epidemic.