Earthquakes and Responsibility

 

These buildings, in Japan, did *not* collapse despite violent shaking. It wasn’t an Act of God. They were built correctly.

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.

 

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  1. JosePluma Thatcher
    JosePluma
    @JosePluma

    Still, Mexico must be doing something right.  The earthquake 32 years ago killed five times as many people.

    • #1
  2. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    JosePluma (View Comment):
    Still, Mexico must be doing something right. The earthquake 32 years ago killed five times as many people.

    Agree. And we should applaud and recognize that. But it’s still not enough.

    • #2
  3. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: A collapsed building in an earthquake zone reflects premeditated murder, or at least manslaughter.

    Only if there is also present a Corpus Delicti.

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    And let us not forget the building inspectors or other governmental officials who allowed buildings to pass.

    People have been studying how to earthquake/tsunami/fireproof buildings at least since 1755 in Lisbon. You can still see some of the measures put into place after that time. You can also see all of the new building that happened then when most of the city was wiped out. The measures are not some new thing just discovered. They are over 250 years old. Places that have earthquakes usually do so regularly, as Lisbon had had earthquakes before and Mexico City and Turkey have had earthquakes before.

    • #4
  5. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Claire, thank you, this essay and your City Journal piece are, I think, the most important things I’ve seen you publish.  Well done.

    Here is an immediate danger, one with long and short term consequences.  One of the important measures to mitigate this danger requires increased government (honest, strict building codes).

    So why is the left not championing Seismic Preparedness as a cause?  Much more obvious than global warming.

    I have a funny true story about an earthquake occurring during a gynecology clinic but will refrain from telling it today out of respect for Mexico.

    • #5
  6. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    It’s a mistake to believe that building codes imposed by governments around the world will be enforced and that  most governments know how to build earthquake proof structures, care  and keep up with technology for doing so.  It’s also a mistake to believe that all builders will know and care and that none will unsafely drive costs down.   People who buy buildings can know and care, but people who buy schools in places like Mexico are governments.

    • #6
  7. Franz Drumlin Member
    Franz Drumlin
    @FranzDrumlin

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: … Spin the wheel: Bogotá, Cairo, Caracas, Dhaka, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jakarta, Karachi, Katmandu, Lima, Manila, Mexico City, New Delhi, Quito, Tehran.

    Memphis, St. Louis . . .

    • #7
  8. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    What devastated Kobe was liquefaction. It’s probably going to always be a problem in Mexico City as well since it is built on a lake bed.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYXn_1LchHI

    • #8
  9. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Franz Drumlin (View Comment):

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: … Spin the wheel: Bogotá, Cairo, Caracas, Dhaka, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jakarta, Karachi, Katmandu, Lima, Manila, Mexico City, New Delhi, Quito, Tehran.

    Memphis, St. Louis . . .

    Charleston, SC. The basic point is that just because a city is not on an active fault line doesn’t mean there aren’t ancient, deeper fault lines that can be triggered.

    • #9
  10. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    JosePluma (View Comment):
    Still, Mexico must be doing something right. The earthquake 32 years ago killed five times as many people.

    The earthquake 32 years ago was 10 times as strong….

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Hang On (View Comment):
    What devastated Kobe was liquefaction. It’s probably going to always be a problem in Mexico City as well since it is built on a lake bed.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYXn_1LchHI

    Liquefaction can be mitigated, but the primary form of mitigation is “don’t build that there.”

    • #11
  12. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The issue of liquefaction is a problem in Mexico City, and also in San Francisco.

    • #12
  13. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Percival (View Comment):
    The issue of liquefaction is a problem in Mexico City, and also in San Francisco.

     

    It’s kinda late (centuries) for Mexico City. And considering they have buildings that sink two or three floors, they should have known something was up. (or down)

    One other factor that hasn’t been mentioned is real estate prices. If real estate prices are really high, you’re going to be willing to spend some money on mitigating this. And if you do it in the design phase, it isn’t all that expensive – especially compared to a building failing.

    And there are also different failure modes – catastrophic and non-catastrophic.

    • #13
  14. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Could the difference between Japan’s and California’s preparedness be that Mexico is very poor?  The school that collapsed was a shoebox.  It’s dreadful and heartbreaking.  This situation makes me think that this is where the UN needs to jump in.  All the speeches about helping one another – the earthquake prone areas need guidance – how about Japan stepping up or other countries who have mastered the building technology and going to Mexico or Turkey – sharing knowledge and help?  Aren’t we part of a global community?

    On another note, your beloved Turkey and the challenges there should also be on the UN radar and world community, but at the moment, we here in the US are deep in disaster recovery mode after 3 major hurricanes hitting the homeland. The girl bagging my groceries yesterday said in Marathon, FL her friend was asked to stay with the 80 evacuees from an elderly home during Irma and not go home. The elderly home was destroyed – She did stay, then found returning to her apt. building that its gone too- everything. She has the clothes on her back. Many areas still have no gas, no resources or power – also many illegals who lost everything are afraid to go to authorities – many are going to churches for help – they are now homeless. Red Cross and FEMA are stretched thin, still in recovery mode – the news story is absent from MSM – many in Houston still suffering. Donations are desperately needed here – schools still closed – businesses and livelihoods lost – normal is a long way off for millions here in FL and in Texas – now Puerto Rico.

    • #14
  15. Nick H Coolidge
    Nick H
    @NickH

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Franz Drumlin (View Comment):

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: … Spin the wheel: Bogotá, Cairo, Caracas, Dhaka, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jakarta, Karachi, Katmandu, Lima, Manila, Mexico City, New Delhi, Quito, Tehran.

    Memphis, St. Louis . . .

    Charleston, SC. The basic point is that just because a city is not on an active fault line doesn’t mean there aren’t ancient, deeper fault lines that can be triggered.

    Cascadia subduction zone. From some studies I’ve read the potential for destruction here is as great or greater than anywhere else in the U.S. and Canada. Even the best building codes can only go so far.

    It seems like a big part of the problem in these other countries, maybe even the biggest part, is corruption. That’s a tough nut to crack, since it usually goes all the way to the top in the government and is ingrained in the culture. We, thankfully, view corruption as a moral failing, something rotten that must be cut out and prevented. In other places it’s such a part of the system that there’s no way to remove it without completely rebuilding the society.

    • #15
  16. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Nick H (View Comment):
    Cascadia subduction zone.

    Yes. This is terrifying. But we don’t know how big the quake is going to be — predicting that is still beyond us. It could be much bigger than anything we’ve experienced. But if it’s within the realm of things we’ve experienced, we know how to prepare for it.

     

    • #16
  17. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    Could the difference between Japan’s and California’s preparedness be that Mexico is very poor?

    No. Chile has managed to survive quakes that would flatten most countries. Chile is a middle-income country. Not a wealthy one. But they have a strong culture of seismic preparedness, and tens of thousands of Chileans are alive now because of it.

    • #17
  18. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Nick H (View Comment):
    It seems like a big part of the problem in these other countries, maybe even the biggest part, is corruption. That’s a tough nut to crack, since it usually goes all the way to the top in the government and is ingrained in the culture. We, thankfully, view corruption as a moral failing, something rotten that must be cut out and prevented. In other places it’s such a part of the system that there’s no way to remove it without completely rebuilding the society.

    Claire mentioned a structural change that can make a huge difference: Don’t have the building inspectors be on the payroll of the contractor. This is far from full proof, but it can make a large difference. Also, don’t have the design engineer work for the contractor.

    • #18
  19. Nick H Coolidge
    Nick H
    @NickH

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):

    Nick H (View Comment):
    Cascadia subduction zone.

    Yes. This is terrifying. But we don’t know how big the quake is going to be — predicting that is still beyond us. It could be much bigger than anything we’ve experienced. But if it’s within the realm of things we’ve experienced, we know how to prepare for it.

    That “if” is one of the reasons I’d never want to live in the Pacific Northwest. Heck, even if it is a smaller earthquake than the worst case I’ll pass. I’ve experienced one major earthquake in my life and that’s one too many for me. I realize intellectually that having the buildings swaying and making the noises that they do is what needs to happen, but being inside them it feels profoundly unnatural. I like my ground staying in one place.

    • #19
  20. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Nick H (View Comment):

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):

    Nick H (View Comment):
    Cascadia subduction zone.

    Yes. This is terrifying. But we don’t know how big the quake is going to be — predicting that is still beyond us. It could be much bigger than anything we’ve experienced. But if it’s within the realm of things we’ve experienced, we know how to prepare for it.

    That “if” is one of the reasons I’d never want to live in the Pacific Northwest. Heck, even if it is a smaller earthquake than the worst case I’ll pass. I’ve experienced one major earthquake in my life and that’s one too many for me. I realize intellectually that having the buildings swaying and making the noises that they do is what needs to happen, but being inside them it feels profoundly unnatural. I like my ground staying in one place.

    While it wasn’t the reason I moved to Paris, I’m grateful every day to live on ground that has never moved in all of recorded human history.

    I’m allowing myself to be infuriated by the coverage of the quake in Mexico. Journalists are missing opportunity after opportunity to do the smallest of public services –– use this chance to remind readers in seismically active zones to nail heavy items to the wall. While everyone’s mind is focused.

    Update: I take it back. This is the kind of thing I want to see.  

    • #20
  21. Tim Wright Inactive
    Tim Wright
    @TimWright

    Well, we are importing Mexico’s people, as well as its  culture, so get ready for that to start happening in this country. If you think my comment is insensitive, perhaps you should open your eyes.

    • #21
  22. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    FYI, this is the work of one of my best friends in grad school: making earthquake-resistant structures. He works at one of the national labs. As he said, he’s guaranteed employment as long as earthquakes keep happening.

    Also, interestingly, one of his mentors in grad school was a Turkish professor who has since died. There have been Turks (or at least one) on this research topic at least since the 1950s. He was on the design team of the space needle in Seattle.

    • #22
  23. Michael Collins Member
    Michael Collins
    @MichaelCollins

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    Could the difference between Japan’s and California’s preparedness be that Mexico is very poor?

    Question:  Are nations unable to protect the lives of their citizens because they are poor, or do they remain poor because they place too low of a value on human life?

    • #23
  24. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Michael Collins (View Comment):

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    Could the difference between Japan’s and California’s preparedness be that Mexico is very poor?

    Question: Are nations unable to protect the lives of their citizens because they are poor, or do they remain poor because they place too low of a value on human life?

    Both, I think, is the common-sense answer. But I want to argue as strongly as possible against the idea that poverty is the cause of bad construction in seismic zones. In the article I wrote for City Journal, I linked to research by the economist Charles Kenny. His work on this has been definitive. I wish it were mentioned in every single article that’s now being written about the quake in Mexico.

    I highly recommend the following article to anyone who’s trying to disambiguate the role of poverty from the role of culture and corruption in this question: Corruption Kills.

    The evidence doesn’t get stronger than that in the social sciences: We can better predict how many will die in a quake by a country’s rank on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index than we can by its poverty, however we measure the latter. Corruption and poverty are not the same variable. Earthquake deaths happen more often in countries that are, as the authors put it, anomalously corrupt — that is, more corrupt than you’d expect a country with that GDP to be. The relationship is remarkably robust.

    I also recommend:

    Disaster risk reduction in developing countries: costs, benefits and institutions: Murray, 2012

    Why Do People Die in Earthquakes? The Costs, Benefits and Institutions of Disaster Risk Reduction in Developing Countries: Murray, 2009

    When buildings collapse in a seismically active zone, people need to go to jail. Or be executed. I’m not a great enthusiast of the death penalty, but it may take just that, in some countries, to get this to stop. The Code of Hammurabi was quite sensible on this point.

    • #24
  25. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):
    When buildings collapse in a seismically active zone, people need to go to jail. Or be executed. I’m not a great enthusiast of the death penalty, but it may take just that, in some countries, to get this to stop. The Code of Hammurabi was quite sensible on this point.

    Some failure modes may be tougher to mitigate than others, but yeah, if you have the jack to throw away on S-400 missiles you don’t have any excuse for collapsing schools.

    • #25
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