Resilience to Earthquakes

In response to the high number of school children killed in school collapses in the recent Sichuan earthquake, Andrew Revkin writes in the New York Times about the challenges of enhancing resilience – even when the problem and solution are well understood – in his article A Move to Turn Schools From Earthquake Death Traps Into Havens:

… The main challenge in bolstering resilience to such geophysical shocks, Ms. Wang, Mr. Tucker and many other experts said, is not the structural engineering. There is no mystery to adding and securing iron rods in concrete, securing floors to beams, boosting the resilience of columns, monitoring the size of gravel mixed with cement.

It is not cost, either. In California, Dr. Tucker notes, the premium for building earthquake resistance into new schools is less than 4 percent. The payoff, beyond saved lives, is significantly lower repair costs after a temblor — 10 to 100 times less than in unimproved buildings. (In poorer countries, the differential in cost could be substantially higher, other experts note, but the payoff, they say, is priceless.)

Rich or poor, the big challenge lies in overcoming social and political hurdles that still give priority to pressing daily problems over foreseeable disasters that may not occur for decades, scores of years, or longer. In some developing countries there is a tendency to ascribe earthquakes and their consequences to fate, but Dr. Tucker and other experts say that lets the authorities off the hook.

“I can’t hold a government responsible for protecting its citizens against a meteorite falling out of the sky,” Dr. Tucker said. “But I can and do hold a government in a country with known seismic risk responsible for protecting its children, who are compelled to attend school, from the school collapsing during an earthquake.”

Dr. Tucker has written or co-written a lengthening string of reports pointing to the building risks worldwide as more populations shift to urban areas, often into shoddy, hastily built structures, with children sent to schools in similar, and often worse, condition.

Arthur Lerner-Lam, who maps disaster risks at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, agrees that urbanization in earthquake zones is setting the world up for its first true megadisaster — a million-casualty earthquake that many seismologists say is only a matter of time. The greatest risk, he said, lies in a belt from Italy and Turkey through central Asia and the Himalayas into central China.

In such regions, Dr. Tucker said, the best blueprints and materials are no guarantee of safety without adequate building codes, laws, training, inspections and enforcement.

The biggest challenge of all may simply be redefining security, and building societies that demand that government investments match risks, said Fouad Bendimerad, an engineering and risk-management consultant in California and chairman of the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative.

“The typical government spends around 15 percent of its G.D.P. to defend against exterior military threats that may never occur during the lifetime of generation,” Dr. Bendimerad said. “Why do we want to exonerate governments from dedicating a small portion of that 15 percent to protect against the threats of natural hazards that we know will happen?”

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