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Thursday, 1 March, 2001, 12:17 GMT
Can money stop an earthquake?
Seattle after the quake
Quake damage in Seattle was relatively minor
No international relief teams are on their way to Seattle in the wake of Wednesday's earthquake.

The toll from the quake currently stands at one dead, 100 injuries, and relatively minor structural damage - though the cost in lost revenue to a major business centre will of course be considerable.


We feel fairly confident that we can build buildings that can resist earthquake

Philip Gould, US engineering professor
Contrast this with the recent earthquake centred on the Indian state of Gujarat, where deaths and injuries were numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

It is true that the Seattle earthquake measured 6.8 on the Richter scale as opposed to the 7.9 of the Gujarat quake.

But the relatively mild effects of the Seattle quake have as much to do with preparedness as with the magnitude of the tremor - and preparedness depends in turn on prosperity.

Money might not be able to stop an earthquake, but it can certainly limit the damage.

Taking measures

Turkey earthquake aftermath
In Turkey, concrete slabs collapsed like card houses
The cities of the west coast of the United States face a chronic threat of earthquakes - but lying in one of the wealthiest regions of the world's richest nation, they have the means to take precautions.

Building regulations making quake-resistant features mandatory were introduced as early as the 1930s in some western states.

Click here to see how quake-proof buildings work

Since then, construction rules have been tightened further. Among the features now demanded are:

"We feel fairly confident that we can build buildings that can resist earthquakes," said Phillip Gould, a civil engineering professor at Washington University in St Louis.

Unstable

In developing countries, building regulations frequently take second place to the demands for cheap, quickly built housing to meet the needs of rapid urbanisation.


There is an urgent need across the board for governments to invest in pre-disaster management

Dr John Twigg, Hazard Research Centre
In the El Salvador earthquakes earlier this year, the huge loss of life in the San Salvador suburb of Santa Tecla was blamed in part on the location of buildings on an unstable slope which turned into a mudslide as soon as the quake struck.

Some of the most haunting images of the earthquake that hit Turkey in 1999 are of concrete slabs lying collapsed like card houses - while adjacent buildings were barely damaged.

Cracked wall of Indian house
Developing countries cannot afford the measures taken for granted in the US
Too late, the Turkish authorities announced legal action against builders - and Indian officials promised a tougher enforcement of building rules in future.

"We are beginning to relearn the lessons that were reiterated following El Salvador - that governments are not prepared," a Bombay engineer said after the Gujarat disaster.

"They directly or indirectly contribute to the death by permitting poor construction quality."

Dr John Twigg, a researcher at the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre of University College, London, says most governments invest in post-disaster response and very little in making people secure.

"There is an urgent need across the board for governments to invest in pre-disaster management, including investment in local capacity such as public education," he says.

But while he insists that educating people about how to plan for and respond to earthquakes is in some ways as important as improving buildings standards, he acknowledges that neither can be achieved without considerable financial outlay - something that a country like India can scarcely afford.

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See also:

20 Feb 01 | Americas
Third earthquake hits El Salvador
01 Mar 01 | Americas
Seattle counts cost of quake
01 Mar 01 | Americas
In pictures: Earthquake in Seattle
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