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One More Quake


This is my fourth ZNet Commentary on earthquakes.The gist of the text that follows has been repeated by me in books and articles for the last 40 years. This time it is the quake in Italy. So, here, again, is the story of a terrible yet "strangely" ignored problem.
 
 This could be a list of the most menacing problems humans face [listed alphabetically]:
 
– American elites (with their political "facade")
 
– Earthquakes
 
– Pollution
 
– War
 
Earthquakes? Can earthquakes make the list?
 
If the criterion for listing is the number of victims (dead, wounded, homeless, pain, misery, etc) quakes are very close to war in the list. However, if the criterion is the degree of ignoring the problem in comparison to its destructive power, earthquakes probably make the top of the list. Also, the elites, war, or pollution can be stopped, quakes cannot be prevented [even through…prayer].
 
The course for quake-resistant structures in the Technical University of Athens [The Polytechnic], in the early 1950s, lasted for three semesters. We were taught that Athens was not an earthquake-prone place. In 1981, a 6.6 Richters quake hit Athens. For 20 seconds [the duration of the quake] the 3.5 million of Greeks in Athens were almost certain that those were our last 20 seconds on earth. Two decades later, there were another "20 seconds". There are more to come in the future.
 
The "experts" (seismologists, etc) were telling the people of the L’Aquila area in Italy that there place was not quake-prone. So it was said in the evening news. The present quake was 6.3 Richters and must have lasted for only [about] 17 seconds. It took only 17 seconds to almost destroy 26 towns around L’Aquila, in the Apennine mountains. It took years for Hitler in occupied Greece to destroy an equal number of towns and villages, or W. Bush to accomplish a similar "feat" in Iraq. The quake-war comparison is so obvious, yet so disregarded, that this ignoring seems to be "abnormal".
 
In the summer of 1749 Handel composed his oratorio "Theodora" [see note]. About six months later, in February 1750, a "series of earthquakes" hit London! "Many people fled London; ‘they say they are not frightened’, observed Walpole, ‘but that in such fine weather, Lord, one can’t help going into the country’. Mrs Montague was amongst the more audacious, as she reports in a letter to her sister:
 
I was not under any apprehensions about the earthquake, but went that night to the Oratorio ["Theodora"], then quietly to bed, but the madness of the multitude was prodigious. Nearly fifty of the people I had sent to, to play cards here the Saturday following, went out of town to avoid been swallowed, and I believe they made a third part of the people I asked, so that you may imagine how universal the fright must be. The Wednesday night the Oratorio was very empty, though it was the most favourite performance of Handel’s." [Christopher Hogwood, "Handel", Thames and Hudson, 1988, p. 219]. I wonder if, today, the people in London ever think about earthquakes. Also, what do the "experts" think about this matter?
 
[Note: The 1750 London quake "killed"  Handel’s "Theodora". To two refined gentlemen that "applied" to Handel for the (performance) of the "Messiah" he "cried out": "Mein-herren! you are tamnable tainty! you would not co to TEODORA – der was room enogh to tance, when dat was perform". Yet, Handel did not lose his humor. His comment in cases like that: "Never moind; de moosic vil sound de petter". By the way, Handel considered his "Theodora" "far beyond" his "Messiah"! It is time for men and women, especially working men and women, of the 21st century to discover the greatness of the Handelian music. We shall see. End of Note.]
 
In Rome "on 14 January 1703 there began a series of violent earth tremors which lasted with more or less consistent intensity for nearly two months. Special prayers, fasts and processions took place to ward off what was seen as a fitting punishment for the decadent luxury of Roman society…Terrible cracks appeared in the Vatican and the Colosseum and the pillars of Bernini’s great baldacchino in St Peter’s were seen to tremble. Perhaps the most amazing scenes took place on the night of 2 February, when a rumor spread that the city was to be destroyed within two hours. Streets, squares and gardens quickly filled with people, many of them half dressed, flinging themselves on their knees, making public confession and embracing each other as if for the last time, and it was almost morning before a relative calm was restored". [Jonathan Keats, Handel, Victor Gollancz, 1985, p. 29].
 
L’Aquila, the epicenter of the present quake, is only 70 miles northeast of Rome. Again, what do the "experts" think about the 1703 story? My rough estimate, based on the data published in the media, shows that at a 70 miles distance, in Rome, only buildings of 4 stories "felt" the quake quite intensely and probably suffered deformations (with not visible effects), which, however, might have been imprinted in the structural "memory" of the buildings. 
 
Of course, as usual, some of the "experts" claim to have predicted the present Italian quake. On this matter of quake "prediction" Charles Richter himself had this to say  in 1970 about the people who predict quakes: "What ails them is exaggerated ego plus imperfect or ineffective education, so that they have not absorbed one of the fundamental rules of science – self-criticism. Their wish for attention distorts their perception of facts, and sometimes leads them on into actual lying… The press and the public will go toward the suggestion of prediction like hog to the trough…" [Suzan Elizabeth Hough, "Richter’s Scale", Princeton University Press, 2007, p.265, 312].
 
[Parenthesis: Charles Richter (1900-1985) is one of the most important and interesting men in American history! Of course, he is unknown to almost all Americans as their attention "faculty" is saturated with the images of John Wayne, W. Bush, ConDolcezza Rice, JFK, etc, so that there is no space for the Richters of the world to occupy some space in this "faculty". Richters name is the most repeated name not only in science but, also, in everyday life all over the world, as there are dozens of quakes that happen daily, yet he suffered from Asperger’s syndrome (a disorder resembling autism). Here is a passage from a text written by him in 1970, that describes the man: "I need not tell you that right now there are all the necessary means to create a decent world. The chief obstacles are ignorance; greed; militarism; nationalism; and the violence that stems either from a psychotic impulse to destruction, or from a feeling of inferiority and a desire for revenge". [Ibid, p. 310]. Prophetic? Yes! Unbelievably accurate? Yes! And that, 30 years before the actual events and the actual…personalities.]
 
So, if quakes constitute so important a problem for humanity, what can we do about it? As for most problems the [honest] answer is quite simple: "[E]arthquake risk could be removed, almost completely, by proper building construction and regulation". [Richter’s words in 1970]. Thus, although quakes cannot be prevented, they can be rendered not deadly.
 
If we accept the truth of the above statement, then the solution rests in the hands of civil engineers, the ones that do the structural design of buildings, that is "design" the strength of the buildings. That seems right, but it is not. The ones who make the decisions about the buildings that people live in are the… politicians! Whence the thousands of dead and crippled during a quake. Actually, this is an apt case for the application of a "pareconish" solution to one of the most important problems in human life. The process should start with the engineers and then should finally be decided, collectively, by the ordinary people from below. But, first, we have to begin with the existing situation.
 
–  The existing situation in engineering:
 
Civil engineers, the persons responsible to deal with quakes in relation to buildings, in their overwhelming majority are essentially ignorant of the problem. This morning an Italian engineer said: "Ancient Rome used high quality mortar [!] and stone [!] to put up monuments and buildings that have lasted 2,000 years…[emphasis added, see below]".  Even engineers that do quake research in the universities, fill innumerable pages with mathematical symbols, or do experimental work, that is basically flawed and light years away from reality, which can be observed only in a town destroyed by a quake. To correct this problem they have to rethink it from square one, starting with the materials used to construct buildings and ending with the shape and height of the buildings. Finally, the new solutions should become mandatory courses for all civil engineers in the technical universities.
 
– The existing situation with building materials:
 
* Masonry: Any building built with masonry walls (of stone or of bricks) is a death-trap. Period! There are no "high quality" mortars or stones! That some masonry structures have survived for centuries does not mean they were "strong". The destruction or survival of a structure, during a quake, is "site-specific"! One structure is destroyed and another, a few yards away, survives. In reality it is a problem of "geography" or "geometry".
 
* Steel Reinforced Concrete: This was the core of the quake problem during the 20th century and is the core quake problem for the 21st century. Concrete is an essentially brittle material that cannot withstand a quake. [Chalk is a brittle material]. Since the turn of the 20th century to this day there are tens of thousands of multi-storied concrete buildings that collapsed during a quake burying alive the people living in them. The people responsible for this are the politicians, the entrepreneurs,and the engineers. This has to be stopped from below by the ordinary people. Can you imagine that a person like Berlusconi in Italy or like Palin in Alaska [of the "gigantic" quakes] can do the right thing for ordinary people in relation to quakes? A couple of decades ago I submitted an article to the International Herald Tribune, in Paris, expressing these views about concrete in relation to quakes. The article was never published. I was not naive. I was aware of the power of the huge worldwide industry of Portland cement production. I had to make the effort, just in case…
 
* Height of buildings: This is not the place to discuss this problem, which is basically a social problem. However, instinctively we all know what happens to tall buildings during quakes.
 
– The existing situation in old city centers:
 
One cannot intentionally raze the masonry buildings in the old city centers (medieval or other), especially in Europe. Unfortunately the quakes will do that little by little, as they did a few days ago in Italy. What engineers can do and should do is develop methods and materials to secure survival of the people in a masonry building, assuming that it has collapsed. This can be done. As for the money and the know-how for such a project, these can be found in the budgets and in the research for tanks, jet-fighters, drones, stealths, etc. 
 
Today, the only people who will agree with every word in the above text are the dead, the crippled, and the 60,000 homeless on the slopes of the snow-capped Apennine mountains in Italy. Also, in agreement will be people with honest pareconish thinking, especially civil engineers with honest pareconish thinking.

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