An Earthquake is not an Academic Subject

This is the “process” our societies deal with an earthquake after it hits an area on the planet:

– First a journalist announces the name of the area.

– Then he or she mentions the magnitude of the quake on the “Richter scale”.

– Immediately after that with rather knowledgeable air they mention the “epicenter”, the depth, and data on the fault of the area hit, and possibly the duration of the quake.

– Inevitably, they (the journalists) are obliged to mention an initial estimate of the number of deaths, always following the instructions of the government; no panic, the smaller the number of deaths the better.

– Finally there is a ”parade “ of “experts” (usually the same persons for decades): seismologists, geologists, and less frequently professors of civil engineering who try to prophesize what is going to happen in the immediate future, etc.

– This goes on for three to five days after the event, by repeating the same stuff ad nauseam. Also, there is the occasional unearthing alive of a baby or of a woman out of the rubble, accompanied by applauding by the bystanders and dissemination in the news, worldwide.

So, the viewers and the listeners of the news have enriched their academic or encyclopedic storage of knowledge about seismology and possibly of geography. For example they can locate Nepal on the map.

And then, there is silence and oblivion [or “Lethe” to be a “cultured” Greek].

How about the “reality” of a quake not about its encyclopedic interest? This reality is buried in statistics or lists in all kinds of places. For example, from 2001 to 2010, during ten years, there were 13 significant quakes. Of these here is a list of six “big” ones:

–  2001, Gujarat, India,   20,085 deaths

–  2003, Iran,  31,000 deaths

–  2004  Indonesia,  227,898  deaths

–  2005  Kashmir, Pakistan, India,  86, 000  deaths

–  2008  China,  87,857 deaths

–  2010  Haiti,  316,000  deaths

The numbers of deaths are “official” numbers.  That is governmental numbers. Again, here is an example as to the reality of quakes: In 1976 there was a “big” one in Tagshan, in China. The “official” number was 242,769 deaths. The number reported by a team of American civil engineers on behalf of the American Society of Civil Engineers is estimated at 750, 000 [seven hundred thousand] deaths.

To this carnage one has to add the number of people crippled or maimed for life.

It took only 17 seconds for an earthquake to almost destroy 26 towns around L’Aquila, in the Apennine Mountains in Italy. It took years for Hitler in occupied Greece from 1941 to 1944 to destroy an equal number of towns and villages, or W. Bush to accomplish a similar “feat” in Iraq.

At this point let us make one more list, a list of the most menacing problems humans face [listed according to intensity of threat]:

– American elites (with their political “facade”)

– Nukes [military and commercial]

– Pollution

– War

– Earthquakes

Earthquakes? Can earthquakes make the list?

If the criterion for listing is the number of victims (dead, wounded, homeless, pain, misery, etc) quakes are quite 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, Nukes, war, or pollution can be stopped, quakes cannot be prevented [even through…prayer].

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.

[Note: More information about Charles Richter (1900-1985) can be found in my ZNet article “A Famous (But Unknown) Scientist” of March 11, 2008, which is based on the book “Richter’s Scale” by Suzan Elizabeth Hough, Princeton University Press, 2007]

Therefore, the solution to the quake problem is not “seismologic”, encyclopedic, academic or other. The solution is the “building”. Buildings are designed and built by civil engineers.

If observers from another planet could view the material and social changes that appeared on the face of the earth during the last one hundred years, they would conclude that one of the most important factors for the existing material and social reality on the planet has been the use of steel-reinforced concrete.

The ease and speed with which humans can make a concrete building frame has enabled them to construct multi-story buildings in infinite numbers. From the moment of the arrival of this type of building, life changed for the mass of twentieth century men and women. This kind of building allowed the state to cram a great part of the population into miserable apartments in multi-story concrete buildings. The social, political, psychopathological, and even anthropological aspects of the problem of cramming millions in these “buildings-machines” has yet to be seriously addressed.

This social problem of the multi-story apartment building is magnified to a fatal degree at those parts of the Earth which are earthquake-prone.

Concrete is an intrinsically brittle material, even when reinforced with steel. (Chalk is another brittle material). A multi-storey concrete building cannot survive a big earthquake, if hit directly by the earthquake. The damage from a quake to a building is site specific. A building can remain intact, while another one, even a few feet away, can be destroyed completely.

Naturally, it is reasonable to ask: who is responsible for the proliferation of the concrete multi-story apartment building? As already mentioned, it is the state. Not only because it crams the masses, like sardines, in these “buildings-machines”, but because, with the help of its technical “commissars”, the engineers, it permits and promotes the construction of these “death-traps”, in earthquake-prone areas.

So, we reach to the, rather, strange conclusion that the thousands of deaths caused by quakes is a political problem!

After the collapse of a concrete building the “lucky” ones are those who die on the spot. An unknown number of trapped survivors, under hundreds of tons of concrete, are killed in a terrible manner by their…rescuers. At some point, a few days after the quake, the state (the politicians) orders the removal of the concrete mass with the use of heavy construction equipment, thus dismembering any survivors who are still alive. A couple of decades ago in Salonika, an engineering colleague of mine pleaded with the politicians not to use the construction equipment, as there might still be survivors under the mass of the concrete. They refused, and used the equipment only 48 hours after the quake. All my friend could do was to burst to tears.

Is there a solution? Did the technical universities of the world try seriously to find a solution, for more than a century?

During this period of time, what the universities did was to try to find out how to “strengthen” the concrete buildings by devising scale models of buildings and experimenting on them. The Japanese, once, tried to be “realistic”, by avoiding the scale models, and fixed a… rocket on the top of a multi-story building! All the benefit these “toys” offered to humanity, was more and more dead in collapsed concrete buildings.

If the extremely heavy and weak concrete of a tall building kills, what then could be the solution? Evidently, a low building made of light materials.

Such a building should meet three criteria:

1. It should be a low one-story structure.

2. It should be of light but sturdy material (to withstand wind forces).

3. It should be inexpensive

There has never been a serious effort by the technical universities of the world to design such a building for the benefit of ordinary people, to protect them from death when a quake hits.

The argument that is usually raised against this proposal is that if you eliminate the tall buildings then you are apt to cover the surface of the earth with one-story houses for the billions of its inhabitants; an ecological catastrophe.

Let us be honest. Where did all these humans use to live before they inundated the few big cities in all countries, from Greece to China? Was the surface of the earth covered to capacity with their home villages? The “brutal” motive for people to move to the cities was and is poverty. Actually, it is a “benign” Phoenix Program initiated by the world economic elite; a sequel to the original Greek and Vietnamese murderous programs.

Also, there is another, rather “vulgar” development that refutes the above argument. For example, there are Greek immigrants, admittedly not very numerous, who after having been “successful” by climbing the social ladder from dishwashers in New York or Frankfurt to restaurateurs, they then build summer-houses back in their home villages, usually mimicking, architecturally, Swiss chalets, thus occupying two times their… allotted domicile space on the face of the earth.

To close this article here is Richter’s assessment of our societies written by him in 1970: “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”. [Hough, page 310].

1 comment

  1. Robert Hall May 22, 2015 5:04 pm 

    Actually, quite a bit of work has been done to build earthquake resistant buildings, and much along the lines you describe, for example, the steel frame houses put up by Sekisui Housing in Japan.

    This is a much deeper story than just earthquake resistance in an area highly prone to them, so if you are interested, please contact me. Doc Hall

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