Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"In recent earthquakes, buildings have acted as weapons of mass destruction,"

Under the world's greatest cities, deadly plates

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Megacities are something new on the planet. Earthquakes are something very old. The two are a lethal combination, as seen in the recent tragedy in Port-au-Prince, where more than 200,000 people perished -- a catastrophe that scientists say is certain to be repeated somewhere, and probably soon, with death tolls that once again stagger the mind.


n many vulnerable cities, people are effectively stacked on top of one another in buildings designed as if earthquakes don't happen. It is not the tremor that kills people in an earthquake but the buildings, routinely constructed on the cheap, using faulty designs and, in some cities, overseen by corrupt inspectors. The difference between life and death is often a matter of how much sand went into the cement or how much steel into a supporting column. Earthquakes might be viewed as acts of God, but their lethality is often a function of masonry.

"In recent earthquakes, buildings have acted as weapons of mass destruction," Bilham writes in the journal Nature.


Brian Tucker, an earth scientist who leads GeoHazards International, said 10 percent of the money going to help Haiti rebuild should be dedicated to mitigating the destruction in earthquakes. But he also knows from many years of sounding warnings about possible earthquakes that people tend to be complacent about catastrophes that have yet to happen.

"People who advocate diet and exercise are chumps, and heart surgeons are heroes," Tucker said.

Bilham said he would like to see the United Nations develop a building-inspection program akin to its efforts to look for banned nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Zoback, likewise, is impatient for action that could save lives:

"We know where the problems are. We know what to do. We know how to fix it. We just need the political will."

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