Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Trying to stay ahead of earthquake disasters


By Kenneth Chang

“Earthquakes do not kill people,” seismic experts often say. “Buildings do.”

For Brian E Tucker, the founder and president of a nonprofit called GeoHazards International that helps developing countries better prepare for earthquake disasters, two quakes in the late 1980s provided a stark illustration.

A magnitude-6.8 earthquake in December 1988 devastated Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union. The official death toll was 25,000. Unofficial estimates put the number of dead at 40,000 or higher.

Ten months later, a slightly larger earthquake, magnitude 6.9, ruptured south of San Francisco, jolting about as many people as the Armenian quake had. In West Oakland, the elevated Cypress Freeway pancaked upon itself. San Francisco’s Marina district, built on landfill that turned liquid in the shaking, caught fire. A segment of the Bay Bridge collapsed.

The death toll was 63. “I was just shocked by that,” said Dr Tucker, who at the time ran the geological hazards program for California. “It sort of confirmed my gut feeling, my intuition that there was a tremendous disparity in the lethality of earthquakes.

In places like California and Japan, quake-resilient construction is standard. In many other places, building codes are lax, and builders take shortcuts. “I just thought, we should somehow figure out how to export these practices — adapting them, of course — to developing countries that were really at risk,” Dr Tucker said. The magnitude-7.8 earthquake that shook buildings to the ground in Nepal last month demonstrated the truism again.

In 1990, Dr Tucker took a leave of absence to obtain a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard. He returned to California, quit his job at the California Geological Survey and founded GeoHazards. “They have done fabulous work for decades, projects that make a difference, like retrofitting schools in Nepal and training local builders in many countries,” said Susan E Hough, a seismologist with the United States Geological Survey.

Dr Tucker cites Aizawl, a city in earthquake-prone northeast India, as an example. Working with the local government, a committee of experts diagnosed risks and suggested solutions, and the city has restricted cutting into slopes that would be susceptible to landslides.

“Our whole DNA is preparedness and to act before a disaster,” Dr Tucker said. “So we try to find out where a disaster is going to happen and where people aren’t doing enough and try to help them do it.”

At the top of the list was Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. The city is nestled in a valley near the Himalayas, above where the Indian subcontinent is being pushed below the Eurasian tectonic plate. A civil war a decade ago weakened the government and pushed people into the cities.

GeoHazards predicted that building collapses would cause most of the injuries and deaths in the event of a quake in Nepal. It helped set up a local nonprofit, the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal, which worked to retrofit schools and hospitals, to train emergency personnel and to educate people how to prepare.“I think they saved lives,” Dr Tucker said.

The more than 7,300 deaths reported so far are fewer than what many had feared for a major earthquake. Dr Hough said it appeared much of the shaking of the Kathmandu valley went into what seismologists call long-period energy.

“Like long swells in the sea,” Dr Hough said. “Each cycle took about five seconds, as opposed to more jittery high-frequency motion that would have been more damaging to local buildings. But it appears that preparedness efforts, even in the face of overwhelming challenges, made some difference as well.”

Dr Tucker said his organisation had an easier time working with a stable government in Bhutan, a nation to the east of Nepal. GeoHazards has trained engineers for the government’s disaster management department. Dr. Tucker is also looking to piece together a quicker, cheaper way to protect children in schools.

During earthquakes, students are instructed to take shelter under their desks, but that provides little help if the desk cannot survive the debris of a roof falling on it. “The schools are badly built, and the desks are pathetic,” Dr Tucker said.

The Nepal earthquake occurred on a Saturday when the schools were empty. But in Sichuan, China, in 2008, thousands of children and teachers were crushed to death when schools collapsed during a magnitude-8.0 earthquake.

About a month ago, Dr Tucker met Ido Bruno, a professor of industrial design at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. A student of Bruno’s, Arthur Brutter, designed an earthquake-resilient desk for his final project. After Brutter graduated, the two continued to refine the design. The desk, whose design was licensed by an Israeli furniture maker, is light enough for two students to carry, but it can survive a one-ton weight falling on it.

Tests conducted at Padua University in Italy in 2012 dropped weights onto school desks, comparing how a typical design compared with a studier version developed by Israeli designers. “For him, the table was the missing link in creating safe solutions,” Bruno said of Tucker. “For us, it’s great, because it’s a chance to go to the developing world.”

Tucker hopes that he can persuade the Israeli company to train furniture makers in Bhutan to replicate the design and then Bhutan’s education ministry to purchase the tables. He said he thought the tables, made of steel tubes and laminated wood and for use by two students, could cost as little as $70. “Then we will be able to save lives of school kids even if the school collapses,” he said. “The cost per life saved there is like $35. That’s, to me, a real breakthrough if we can do that.”

Until the schools can be strengthened, a more expensive and time-consuming endeavor, “this will give us breathing room,” Tucker said.

The Indonesian city of Padang, on the west coast of Sumatra, faces a different seismic threat. Although that region has been shaken many times, including the 2004 earthquake that generated a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in coastal areas around the Indian Ocean, stress has not been released in a part of the offshore fault that threatens Padang. When that fault breaks, it is expected to generate a tsunami that could scour a swath where more than half a million people live. Many will not have time to escape inland.

GeoHazards’ plan is help people to escape upward instead of away from the tsunami. It has coordinated a design for a raised earthen structure, 23 feet high, on a seldom used air force base that would serve as a park for the city’s residents and refuge for up to 20,000 people from a tsunami.

This article originally appeared on The New York Times, a partner of The Express Tribune.
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