Is Costa Rica Prepared For A Major Earthquake?

Experts in seismology predict a high magnitude and shallow earthquake in the South Zone


Increasingly, experts in seismology predict an earthquake of high magnitude and little depth. in Costa Rica’s Zona Sur (Southern Zone).

It is even estimated that the movement will be like releasing a destructive energy of almost 40,000 atomic bombs, a thousand times more than the one that exploded in Nagasaki, during the Second World War.


The magnitude of the earthquake would be 7.2 or 7.4 on the Ritcher scale. The cause of that would be an unusual accumulation of energy under the Osa Peninsula and Punta Burica.

In the face of such a possibility, seismologist of the Volcanological and Seismological Observatory (Ovsicori), Marino Protti, talking to raises the following question: Is Costa Rica ready to face a major earthquake?

Costa Rica and its infrastructure

If the earthquake would hit cities, large or small, engineers and architects believe the large buildings and houses built under the rigors of the Seismic Code (Código Sísmico), would withstand the onslaught of earthquakes.

But, these professionals also believe that20% of buildings not supervised by engineers and in a state of “informality” (according to a CFIA report) could be damaged.

“Informal housing, many in marginal neighborhoods, do not have a design supervised by a professional. In a strong movement, a house built without structural calculation is sure to collapse,” according to structural engineer Daniel Acuña.

This is supported by engineer Miguel Cruz, president of the Commission of the Seismic Code of the Federated College of Engineers and Architects (CFIA), structural engineer Daniel Acuña García and the Dean of Architecture of the Veritas University, Luis Diego Quirós.

The difference, then, the damage would depend on the way which the structure is built: built informally or not.

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Centers and medical attention

An earthquake of high magnitude would probably result in physical and even emotional injuries. Doctors are prepared for that.

The Cinchona earthquake on Jan. 8, 2009 was among Costa Rica’s most destructive.

Daniel Quesada, director of the Center for Emergencies and Disasters of the Caja Costarricense Seguro Social (CCSS) – Costa Rican Social Security Fund, is the one who best knows the emergency medical plans.

If the earthquake happened in the south of the country, possibly the wounded would arrive at the Ciudad Neily hospital. That is why, recently, the medical center was seismically reconstructed.

Health authorities believe that the hospital would be able to respond to emergencies in the event of a strong earthquake.

According to Quessa, in the event of a big emergency, the Cuidad Neily hospital would have available support by mobile medical units and air transfers from the hospital in Pérez Zeledón.

The crisis would also test hospitals in the center of the country. In the Gran Área Metropolitana (GAM) – Greater Metropolitan Area – there are four central hospitals: the San Juan de Dios, Mexico, Calderón Guardia and Hospital de Niños (Children’s Hospital).

Among these medical centers, there are a total of 1,900 stretchers, in an emergency 40% of them will be available to care for those affected, according to calculations by Health authorities.

Quesada said that a computer system is currently being developed for emergency management. As part of that, a virtual simulation is carried out in which a steering group will have to resolve situations and organize the hospitals in case of catastrophes.

A powerful, magnitude-7.6 earthquake shook Costa Rica and a wide swath of Central America in September 2012

National Emergency Commission

The Comisión Nacional de Emergencias (CNE) – National Emergency Commission –  will be the organization that will be responsible for carrying out more tasks if a high-intensity earthquake occurs.

Lidier Esquivel, head of the Department of Prevention and Mitigation at the CNE, said they are prepared to face a strong earthquake, as was seen a few days ago, a 6.7 quake that hit Panama near the Costa Rica border.

Esquivel acknowledged that in an emergency you are never 100% ready but they never let their guard down. For the head of Prevention and Mitigation last week’s quake tremor gave an idea of how to will proceed in a future event in the Southern Zone, testing the response of the Cruz Roja (Red Cross), Bomberos (Fire Department), Fuerza Pública (National Police), municipalities, and emergency committees, among others.

“We have a view on which we can work, we cannot lower our guard on these issues, we have strengths, but also weaknesses on which we have to continue working on,” said Esquivel.

The CNE is the leading public institution with regard to the coordination of preventive work in situations of imminent risk, mitigation and response to emergency situations.

Bombero’s response

The Cuerpo de Bomberos (Fire Department) has a ‘Search and Rescue Team in Collapsed Structures’ that has been acquiring equipment and training its personnel to be prepared for catastrophes. They provide an effective first response, according to Luis Fernando Salas, Operational Director of the Bomberos.

The firefighters would attend a possible emergency with 75 units with specialized equipment for a first response.

“There is not a single country in the world that has all the resources to handle an emergency. In Costa Rica, we are lacking. We have limitations in each case because we have very few connecting roads, and if one is damaged we cannot pass and it would affect us, there are a number of factors that can affect the work of the institutions,” the director said.

In the first moments of emergency, Firefighters provide communal assistance. Subsequently, the National Emergency Commission will be responsible for coordinating the units with the other first response bodies.

With the forecast of an earthquake for the South Zone, the delegations in Ciudad Neily, Golfito, Hermosa, Buenos Aires, Perez Zeledon, Quepos, Puerto Jimenéz, Golfito and Palmar Norte will be responding.

Luis Salas stressed that they will never be fully prepared for an emergency, so they continue to train staff and the population.

The 1991 earthquake in Costa Rica was at magnitude 7.6 on the Richter scale and also hit Panama. The depth of the quake was located 10 kilometers away and its epicenter was located in the village of Pandora, in the Caribbean province of Limon. It is the most powerful earthquake registered in Costa Rica that caused damage to 10% of Costa Rica territory and 20% of Panama. Damage and most notable losses occurred on roads, railways, bridges, ports and aqueducts.

How is the Ministry of Education prepared in its schools and colleges?

In the case of public schools or colleges, the teachers form part of the Emergency Committee are in charge of preparing plans in each educational center based on a guide from the Ministerio de Educación Pública (MEP) – Ministry of Public Education.

Reinaldo Ruiz, director of Institutional Planning at the MEP, indicated that the Risk Management Plan guide is mandatory in each education center.

The plan includes elements such as equipment and types of training that are available in case of emergency.

On August 19, in the Simulacro Nacional de Sismos (National Earthquake Drill), organized by the CNE, the MEP expects the participation of all educational centers and thus put into practice a measure of prevention against a possible major earthquake.