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When news of a quake such as the 7.1 magnitude temblor that just devastated Mexico City crosses the transom, I have mixed emotions. Like everyone, I’m horrified. Like everyone, I’m especially horrified by the deaths of children in a collapsed school. But more than most people, I’m outraged.
I grew up on fault lines in San Francisco and Seattle, which are generally, albeit imperfectly, prepared: Both cities have strong building codes, and in both places, those codes are enforced.
I’ve been working on earthquake preparation campaigns since I moved to Istanbul in about 1995. Istanbul is neither generally nor imperfectly prepared. It has a strong building code, but one that is not always enforced at all. It is on a fault line. It is very obvious that too little of the city’s construction is built to withstand the inevitable earthquake.
If you’re considering donating to a disaster relief organization in light of the many recent, heartbreaking natural disasters in North America, may I suggest this one, Geohazards? Their focus is on preparation, and that is the stage when donations of money and time can save far more lives than the same amount can in post-disaster recovery.
An earthquake didn’t kill Mexicans yesterday. Buildings did.
Crushed school buildings will kill school kids in Istanbul, just as they did in Mexico City. I can’t tell you the date it will happen, but I can tell you for sure that it will happen. I’ve seen multistory buildings there that wouldn’t stand up even to minor shaking. I know that quite a bit of the EU grant money that was donated to reinforce school buildings in the wake of the Izmit quake in 1999 was pocketed by corrupt officials. Some school buildings don’t even remotely comply with local regulations.
So if you’re in Turkey or know someone who is, it’s worth looking into that. I kept a list of dubious buildings and contractors, starting with the one whose negligence collapsed the building I lived in (while I was still inside it: Sargin Inşaat). Ask me for it. Sargin’s not even the worst, by any means: They at least aren’t taking money to reinforce foundations for schools and then not reinforcing a thing. The contractors who took money to reinforce a school in the neighborhood of Kağıthane apparently did just that, as I mentioned in the meeting notes of a group I convened to discuss ways to mitigate seismic risk in Istanbul.
By far the most disturbing point was this. A member of the group is certain that a school in Kağıthane that is said to have been retrofitted has not in fact been made secure. He said that 350,000 YTL was spent to retrofit the school, but the foundation is still only 16 cm. deep. He also said that the engineer who supervised the work told him, “I wouldn’t send my children here.” He believed this to be true of many schools that have supposedly been retrofitted.
He wasn’t willing to discuss the details of this. I can’t confirm, immediately, that the story is true. But the possibility that it’s true is enough to make me think this should be investigated aggressively. The parents of those 1,100 children believe their kids are safe in that school. If they’re not, those parents are entitled to know. And those children shouldn’t be in there.
If you’re not in Turkey, as you probably aren’t, it’s worth being cautious about how you donate. You don’t want your money going to the kind of crook who took the money to retrofit that school in Kağıthane and spent it on God-knows-what.
So I recommend Geohazards. They’re well-established and serious. They understand this problem. They work around the world, and they’re not naive.
Meanwhile, if you have the political or social clout in Mexico, lend your voice to campaigns to see that the owners of collapsed buildings in Mexico face swift, severe, criminal prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. It is important that this happen. Those kids were not killed by the earthquake. They were killed by people who committed negligent homicide.
After Chile’s big quake, its legal code, and justice system, were good enough that the families of the victims were able to put the slumlords and crooked developers behind bars. That must happen in Mexico, too. And it should happen in Turkey. And should happen now, before another soul perishes.
I wrote about this for City Journal in 2011. We will see more and more such calamities in the coming decade, not because there will be more earthquakes, but because the world is urbanizing:
Two hundred years ago, Peking was the only city in the world with a population of a million people. Today, almost 500 cities are that big, and many are much bigger. That explains why the number of earthquake-caused deaths during the first decade of this century (471,015) was more than four times greater than the number during the previous decade, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. National Earthquake Information Center. If the fatality trend continues upward—and it will, because the urbanization trend is continuing upward, as is the trend of housing migrant populations in death traps—it won’t be long before we see a headline announcing 1 MILLION DEAD IN MASSIVE EARTHQUAKE. Indeed, we’ll be lucky not to see it in our lifetimes.
And few of those deaths will be acts of God. Most will be acts of human negligence.
… we understand enough about seismology to be sure that certain cities face a high risk of earthquakes with enormous death tolls, and we understand enough about engineering and disaster management to say exactly what should be done to protect the residents of those cities. What we don’t understand—or rather, what we’re seldom willing to say plainly—is why some governments take the risk seriously and take aggressive steps to mitigate it, while others shrug and say, Que será, será. …
… Economist Charles Kenny’s definitive 2007 study argues persuasively that the construction industry is the most corrupt sector of the world economy. And the more corruption there is in construction—whether it consists of companies’ using substandard materials or of governments’ granting permission to build in zones unsuitable for habitation—the likelier you are to die. In China, the buildings that crumble during earthquakes are schools and hospitals, while the Party’s headquarters and the houses of its functionaries remain standing. In Turkey, building inspectors work on the contractor’s payroll, creating a massive conflict of interest. Changing that system could save countless lives. But the construction companies, for obvious reasons, don’t want that to happen—and all of Turkey’s major political parties run on construction money.
The absence of outright corruption isn’t enough to keep countries safe; it is also essential to have in place a particular kind of legal regime. Strong tort law is the key, and Chile is a model here as well. During the recent earthquake, a new building in Concepción collapsed. Its surviving inhabitants took the builders to court, charging fraud and, in some cases, murder. Chilean law holds the original owner of a building liable for any earthquake damage that it suffers during its first decade, even if ownership has changed during that time. Because of this law, owners often exceed the provisions of Chile’s already strict building codes in their eagerness to avoid liability. And accountability in the Chilean legal system goes to the top. In February, a Chilean court declined to dismiss a lawsuit against the former president, Michelle Bachelet, and other senior officials for malfunctions in the country’s tsunami-warning system. ….
… Spin the wheel: Bogotá, Cairo, Caracas, Dhaka, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jakarta, Karachi, Katmandu, Lima, Manila, Mexico City, New Delhi, Quito, Tehran. It will be one of them. It isn’t too late to save them. But we need to say the truth about why they’re at risk in the first place.
Feel free to read the whole article. You might also find interesting these two pieces my brother and I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the quake in Port-au-Prince. My brother and his family were there and survived. I wrote about the horror and panic of trying to figure whether they were alive.
Earthquakes are terrifying. But our ability to survive them is entirely a matter of preparing for them seriously and intelligently. We can and should judge a society by how well it prepares for earthquakes. It’s a direct measure of its concern for human life, ability to control corruption, capacity to plan for the future, and ability to carry out that plan.
A collapsed building in an earthquake zone reflects premeditated murder, or at least manslaughter. The sight of such a building should outrage us.