MANILA, Philippines – On Tuesday, October 8, 2013, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake erupted close to Carmen city, near the tourist hub Bohol Island in the Philippines. Days afterward, as many as 100 people were reported dead and many more injured. Eighteen people were trapped and died in Loon, west of Carmen, when Congressman Castillo Memorial Hospital was damaged. The islands, rich with cultural history, now must pick through the debris of old churches and heritage sites. Survivors, familiar with the quake-prone nature of the islands, immediately sought higher ground for fear a tsunami would follow along with the aftershocks.
The Philippines are right on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a large geographical area infamous for volcanos and earthquakes. Areas like the Philippines and Haiti, which in 2010 had it’s own brutal earthquake that claimed nearly 300,000 lives, are arguably more impacted than developed areas and nations after earthquakes. People in emergent areas prone to earthquakes do feel their impact more than others, and there are compelling reasons as to why.
In July 3013, Dingxi city in the poor Gansu Province, home to nearly 3 million people in China, was struck by a 6.6-magnitude earthquake. Rebuilding the city will obviously be very costly. Bad construction and building codes are to blame; another 2008 Chinese earthquake saw schools crushed while government offices stood standing. The issue is exacerbated in impoverished areas where oversight wanes, contractors are lax, and structural engineers are in short supply. The results are cheaply made and supported structures that will crumble in an earthquake.
Charles Kenny, author of a working paper for The World Bank contends that there is no good reason to explain the shoddy construction that leads to deaths. Cost-effective engineering solutions are available and would solve a great deal of building structural issues, but going through the motions of making those wholesale changes in emergent nations is time consuming and costly. Due to corruption, lack of funding, or lack of know-how, these solutions are overlooked in favor of cheaper alternatives that don’t value structural integrity if not human life. Kenny posits that only the most at-risk buildings be outfitted properly to withstand seismic activity with periodic monitoring by “non-experts” in the face of greater construction transparency and oversight.
An eight-year study in the 1990s by the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering Inc. agrees with Charles Kenny. A.W. Charleson and G.D. Fyfe compiled twenty-nine earthquake cases with their respective reports from the developing world. The trends they identified from reconnaissance reports suggest that building damage is most caused by construction, not necessarily the quake itself. “Flawed design concepts are responsible for over half the damage to both residential and non-residential construction. The area of conceptual design is where education and code development programs should be aimed.” The study also recommends that locals assume a leadership role in researching quake aftermath.
Despite the research and aid dedicated to earthquake relief, stories like those in China, Haiti, and the Philippines still happen. Perhaps an answer lies with Iranian and German efforts and the old-style timber Fachwerkhaus structures. While visiting Wuppertal University one summer, young Iranians noted that the structures could resist quake tremors. The scientists constructed their own out of steel beams, the diagonal ones firmly supporting the vertical columns and ensuring they’d remain upright. The beams can be constructed of steel or timber and the style is traditional German. Filling in the areas around the beams can be done with adobe materials, popular in poorer rural areas.
The young Iranian scientists are taking their idea back to Iran, where steel is plentiful, and are trying to introduce it into society there. Maybe if the Fachwerkhaus style can cross one cultural barrier, it can do so with others in time and provide a better, cost-effective construction model for other cultures dealing with earthquakes.
– David Smith