"We cannot predict earthquakes in the way the public would like us to predict earthquakes," Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, said.
U.S. scientists warned back in 2008 that Port-au-Prince was ripe for a catastrophic earthquake, but they had no way of predicting exactly when. Advances are being made, but that kind of precision is still far in the future, reports CBS News Correspondent Ben Tracy.
(Watch the report Tracy submitted below)
For decades, scientists have been focusing on long-term forecasts, successfully measuring the probability that certain fault lines around the world will erupt. California could be next. It's been 300 years since a major quake rocked the southern portion of the San Andreas Fault near Los Angeles.
Scientists here believe there's a 99.7 percent chance that a 6.7 or greater earthquake could hit southern California in the next 30 years, but knowing when is the big question.
Short-term prediction is the elusive holy grail of earthquake science. In April 2009 a major earthquake in Italy was preceded by a series of small earthquakes, known as foreshocks, but that doesn't always mean a big one is coming.
"We can't tell when small earthquakes are foreshocks or when they're part of just background seismic activity," Jordan said.
Scientists have also studied hydroelectric activity and tidal movement but with limited success. Now new research using GPS sensors is focused below plates and fault lines to see if tremors closer to the earth's core lead to quakes on the surface.
Scientists in Texas used that technology in 2008 to predict that Haiti's faultline was primed for a major earthquake.
"The GPS data allows these type of predictions of where these large earthquakes might occur," said Paul Mann of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics.
Until detection technology improves, preparation is still the best defense. Buildings in the United States must be designed to withstand major seismic events. Unfortunately, Haiti's buildings are not.
"It's really not the earthquake that's killing the people, it's the buildings that fail down on people, that cause most of the casualties," Jordan said.
As Haiti saw this week, that destruction still comes without much warning.