It wasn't just poverty that conspired against a building code in Haiti. Illiteracy and an inability to learn from previous disasters also played a role, according to scientists.
Southern California has been learning those lessons from more than a century of earthquake disasters.
"This is an order of magnitude more than we are going to see, ever," predicts CalTech Seismic Engineer Dr. Swaminathan Krishnan.
Dr. Swaminathan says a 7.0 earthquake is a possibility in the Southern California region, but because of upgrades in building codes, the region is well suited to survive the stress.
The 1933 Long Beach earthquake resulted in the first seismic codes in the state. Then, following the San Fernando earthquake in 1971, there was a push to retrofit all buildings made from unreenforced masonry.
"We can now confidently say that the majority of those, not 100 percent, but most of the buildings here are now retrofitted at some level of seismic protection," says Swaminathan.
There is still one area that most experts say remains a concern. Buildings that were built before 1980 still have steel rebar around concrete pillars that are not spaced as tightly as most building codes now require.
"For example, in the Northridge earthquake, there were areas under bridges where you could see the rebar buckling out, and then there were these big areas of compressed concrete that just fell off," said Swaminathan. "And when those boulders of concrete fall off, it means that the slab up above is at the risk of pancaking, falling down. And when the slab above comes crashing down, falling into the slab below, it creates what we call a progressive collapse. There are still many of those buildings here."
It's not a comforting thought for anyone living in or near older concrete buildings. And it means that while Southern California may never see the likes of what's going on this week in Haiti, there may be isolated areas facing similar perils.