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Quake in India


Nikos Raptis

Today

(Jan. 31, ’01) the number of dead from the earthquake that hit India six days

ago is estimated "by officials and aid workers to be from 15,000 to

100,000." The higher estimate came from the Indian Defence Minister, George

Fernandes, as his "personal assessment". Haren Pandya, the Indian Home

Minister, said : "According to our assessment (the figure of dead ) could

be between 15,000 and 20,000" and emphasized that Fernandes’s figure was a

"personal assessment".

In

Turkey the official figure from the earthquake that hit the country two years

ago was around 16,000. Independent estimates raise the figure to double the

official one. That the state , any state, tends to minimize the figure of dead

from a quake can be expected. The state is taken to be responsible for the

building (seismic) codes, the zoning regulations, the control of the quality of

the building materials, etc. Therefore, the fewer dead the better the

"performance" of the state. In addition fewer dead means less panic

for the population in general.

That

the state will try to lie about the number of the dead in a quake can be clearly

seen in the case of the 1976 quake in Tangshan, in China. The official figure

was 255,000 dead. A group of American civil engineers, that investigated the

case, estimated the number of dead to 750,000, three times the official number.

What

one sees in the destroyed cities of India are collapsed multi-story concrete

buildings. Also, what one sees is the rescue of a dozen people (out of the

20,000 or 100,000) lucky enough to survive in the rubble, some of them moved out

of the rubble after having their trapped limbs amputated, in situ. Of course

this makes an "impressive" story for CNN etc. However, to understand

the enormous forces involved one has only to know that a 33 by 33 feet and 5

inches thick concrete slab (without the adjacent beams) weighs 25 metric tons

(or 55,000 pounds). To raise a a 25 ton piece of concrete you need a rather

monstrous crane. And it seems that in India there are hundreds if not thousands

of collapsed concrete buildings most of them multi-story.

Since

the turn of the 20th century the multi-story steel-reinforced concrete building

has become the most prevalent structure in all countries. For one hundred years

the newspapers have repeatedly carried photos (ad nauseam) of collapsed concrete

buildings after an earthquake, but no state ever questioned the role of the

concrete as a material in the carnage. The number of dead from quakes during the

20th century, on the basis of the official figures, is around 2 million.

Concrete

is a BRITTLE material, even when reinforced with steel, that cannot withstand

the forces and the deformations due to a quake. The engineers that design the

concrete frames of buildings are the civil engineers. Not all civil engineers

have the training that would help them understand the behaviour of a multi-story

concrete building during a quake. But, what is more important is that of the few

that understand there are even fewer that are radicalized enough politically to

come out and tell the truth about concrete in relation to earthquakes.

That

in the twentieth century the collapse of concrete buildings has been the cause

of almost all the deaths from quakes, is a fact. That after a quake, people

rebuild the destroyed buildings with the same materials, steel reinforced

concrete, and in the same manner is also a fact. (The claim of the various

states, after a quake catastrophe, that they will deal effectively with the next

quake by "improving" the code for the design of quake-resistant

structures is a joke).

The

quake problem is a political problem. The political significance of the question

of housing the population of a country cannot be overemphasized. For the

governing elite, say in Moscow in the ’30s, or in (the US occupied) Athens in

the ’50s, or of the post-colonial India, the easiest solution was (and is) the

multi-story concrete frame building. That is a death trap, in quake-prone areas.

The

universities have never faced the earthquake and the deaths from the repeated

failure of concrete buildings as a social problem. All that is done in the

schools of engineering is a desperate effort to marginally improve the behaviour

of a concrete structure, an INTRINSICALLY brittle structure, especially the

vertical elements, columns,etc, of the structure. Universities at quake prone

areas should start facing the problem in an HONEST way.

For

the last 50 years the engineering societies (especially the American Society of

Civil Engineers and the American Concrete Institute, two very important

institutions) have produced thousands of pages on the problem, pages that simply

present the efforts for "marginal improvements’ carried out in the

Universities.

What

is to be done? First, the civil engineers should find the courage (and the

honesty) to really SEE the problem with concrete in relation to an earthquake.

Second the technical universities should do the same. Finally, the populations

themselves should take the problem in their own hands and start shying away from

the market of the multi-story concrete frame buildings in quake-prone areas.

The

solution seems to be lightweight one-story buildings. To the argument that if we

eliminate the multi-story building we shall cover the entire surface of the

earth with one-story ones does not hold. Fifty years ago the population of

Athens was around 8% of the entire population, today it is around 45 % ! Fifty

years ago 92 % of the population lived in one-story houses in small towns and

villages covering a minuscule part of the surface of the country. The same holds

for most countries. Who piled more than half of the human population in

multi-story concrete buildings in monstrous cities?

Unfortunately

people face earthquakes in a similar manner to that of facing war; in a not

rational way. The maxim is: "That’s part of life." Tabriz, in Iran,

was razed by quakes and rebuilt on the same foundation and with the same

materials 7 (seven) times, since 634 AD. Today, the ease with which concrete

buildings are built and the barbarity of the (global) elite have added new

terrible dimensions to that old problem of humanity in quake-prone areas.

It

is time that the people in the schools of civil engineering in the universities

(especially in MIT and in Caltech) review the history of concrete in relation to

earthquakes.

 

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