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A soldier stands over rubble in Les Cayes, Haiti, on Aug. 17. Photo: Richard Pierrin/Getty Images

Disasters like the earthquake that struck Haiti on Aug. 14 are caused by nature but exacerbated by human inaction.

Why it matters: Natural disasters will always be with us — and some will be worsened by the effects of human-made climate change — but it's well within our power to keep them from becoming mass killers.

Driving the news: The 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck southwestern Haiti has affected more than 1 million people and killed at least 1,941, though the number will surely rise in the days and weeks ahead.

What's happening: Much of Haiti's vulnerability stems from geographical factors that can't be changed — its location in the Caribbean puts it frequently in the path of tropical storms like the one that struck just days after the Aug. 14 quake, while it also sits on multiple seismic fault zones.

  • But what makes those disasters such killers has less to do with geography than with the country's extreme poverty and resulting inability to invest in preparation and adaptation to those risks.
  • According to the 2020 World Risk Report by the United Nations University, Haiti ranked 22nd overall in the world for risks from natural disasters, but ninth in lack of coping capacities — the ability to respond to a disaster — and eighth in lack of adaptive capacities.

Be smart: What's true of Haiti is true of the world more generally — what makes an earthquake or a storm or a flood or a drought truly deadly is poverty and everything that comes with it.

  • That's one reason why a richer and better-prepared region like the Bay Area in California can suffer a 6.9-magnitude quake in 1989 and lose 63 people, while Haiti lost hundreds of thousands in 2010 after a quake that was just slightly stronger.

The big picture: In the early to mid-20th century, the annual global death toll from disasters often reached 1 million or more per year, but over the past decade, the death toll has rarely risen above 10,000 per year.

  • The decline is even more impressive against the rate of global population growth — even as billions more people have been added to the planet, they're less likely to die in disasters.
  • And while the economic toll of natural disasters has generally risen over the past 40 years, that's in large part a function of a much richer world having more property in harm's way, with the result being that disaster losses as a share of global GDP have declined along with deaths.

What's next: While wealth is a powerful shield, it's not impenetrable, and climate change is likely to amplify many kinds of disasters in ways that severely stress rich countries — and punish poor nations even more.

Go deeper

Extreme weather spots in Illinois

A house on the 2700 block of Jonquil Lane suffered severe damage on June 21, 2021 after a tornado came through the area in Woodridge, Illinois. Photo: Jon Durr/Getty Images

Monday night, a tornado briefly touched down in western LaSalle County and another reportedly flipped a semi-truck near Springfield.

Why it matters: According to new FEMA data analyzing the last two decades, Illinois is seeing an uptick in extreme weather disasters.

The startup that wants to disrupt big internet providers

Maura Losch/Axios

A new startup backed by funding from AOL founder Steve Case and Laurene Powell Jobs wants to break up broadband monopolies across the country.

Why it matters: Internet access has been crucial during the pandemic, but it's not ubiquitous, and it can be both slow and unaffordable in swaths of the country.

44 mins ago - World

Top general: China's hypersonic missile test "very close" to a "Sputnik moment"

Gen. Mark Milley. Photo: Rod Lamkey-Pool/Getty Images

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned Wednesday that China's test of a hypersonic missile is "very concerning" and "very close" to the kind of "Sputnik moment" that triggered the Space Race during the Cold War.

Why it matters: The comments by America's top uniformed general underscore the depths of U.S. concerns about China's rapid military expansion and development of advanced weaponry.