Can you earthquake proof a city?
April 16, 2016 8:05 PM   Subscribe

Four experts talked to the BBC World Service Inquiry programme, which was published on March 24th, about how to make earthquake-prone cities safer. More people may be asking that question in the wake of the major earthquake that struck earlier today, April 16, in Ecuador and the twin earthquakes that hit Japan on April 15 and April 16. US residents have reason to worry as well.

Last March, for the first time, new USGS maps identified "potential ground-shaking hazards from both human-induced and natural earthquakes. ... Approximately 7 million people live and work in areas of the central and eastern U.S. (CEUS) with potential for damaging shaking from induced seismicity. Within a few portions of the CEUS, the chance of damage from all types of earthquakes is similar to that of natural earthquakes in high-hazard areas of California." So perhaps it's time for more US residents to put together an earthquake kit.
posted by Bella Donna (15 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Our house doesn't even have a foundation... I have no idea what's holding it off the ground, let alone how to earthquake proof this balloon framed old farm house... if New Madrid goes off, I hope the garage is still standing for temporary refuge from the elements.
posted by MikeWarot at 8:26 PM on April 16, 2016

The north Texas area has been hit with a lot of quakes, all seemingly caused by fracking, but when cities like Denton tried to ban fracking, the state legislature stepped in astonishingly fast to remind us that voters don't actually have rights if what voters want isn't what contributors to campaign coffers want. See also, homeowner associations.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 10:02 PM on April 16, 2016 [11 favorites]

Small wood-framed buildings have a really good history of resisting earthquakes, as they are generally light and fairly strong. They tend to do much better than cheap concrete buildings like they had in Haiti.

The main weaknesses are a general lack of strength, especially when the exterior walls are made of horizontal or vertical planks (vs. plywood or diagonal planks), a lack of attachment to the foundation, weak masonry parts like chimneys, heavy roofs like tiled roofs and weak stories like in the case of a first floor attached garage with a room above it.

Garages can be made earthquake-resistant, but dealing with large openings requires some thought.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:30 PM on April 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I really don't know what to do about earthquakes, being a former southerner living directly on top of the Hayward Fault Line. At least with a hurricane you got a warning. You could reason yourself in or out of staying to see the shit go down. You could run some kind of internal arithmetic: the number of STORMTRACKER 9000 montages on the news vs. the price of Duracell stock, or the neighborhood canary - the one who was always right about which ones were worth getting the fuck out of town for. If that lady (always a lady) left, you left. If not you had time to invite all your friends over, stock up on booze, fortify your house, put all your furniture on blocks, get really drunk.

But if my apartment falls in on top of me out of nowhere, not sure a first aid kit and some water is going to help much. How am I even supposed to know if my average rental apartment is even safe to live in? I've seen the tapes from Loma Prieta. I don't recall lack of canned goods being the problem, more like the freeway collapsed on itself and trapped people inside. Did they fix all this shit between now and then? Who knows? No one from here seems to give it much thought, so I guess it's all cool?

After Katrina all the non-gulf coast people were like "why didn't they evacuate". Because if you evacuated every time a storm blew through you wouldn't really live there. A monster hurricane is always a week away, forever. And so they say out here, the Big One come could come at any moment. That seems like a different bargain than barricading your windows and deciding to ride it out though. But if you thought about it too much, you wouldn't live here.
posted by bradbane at 10:32 PM on April 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

It kind of sucks, but the best you can probably do is to push local politicians to enforce the building codes. We've gotten pretty good at designing buildings so they won't collapse, but a lack of enforcement could have dire consequences.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:43 PM on April 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

My house is entirely made out of bricks without any wood frame holding it together. It would be transformed into a dusty pile of broken bricks in about 10 seconds during an earthquake. As would the whole rest of my city.
posted by octothorpe at 11:00 PM on April 16, 2016

Random observations from Christchurch (disclaimer: I am not an engineer or an architect, just an observant resident).

In domestic architecture, heavy tile roofs are bad, concrete tiles the worst, while steel/iron roofs came through fine. Old brick chimneys collapsed. Timber-framed houses with wooden cladding were fine; houses with cladding that doesn't flex were damaged. Probably most damage to houses was ultimately from liquefaction of the ground underneath, causing foundations to sink unevenly and the houses to flex and twist.

The taller buildings in the city mostly didn't kill people by collapsing, with a couple of exceptions where the design was just wrong . Many deaths were caused by masonry falling off the top of older low buildings.

Since the earthquake, there's been a nationwide push to raise standards in building code, including forcing owners to strengthen substandard buildings or face penalties.

Personally, I think you want to live in a wood-framed house with a steel roof and work in a building where the builders and designers weren't crooks. Try not to live on a reclaimed swamp.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:05 PM on April 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

Bettridge's Law applies here. But, there are plenty of things cities can do to make sure that when there is a major quake people can survive. The BBC article was interesting but mainly about buildings surviving or collapsing. I look around my quake-prone city center neighborhood and I see:
* plenty of signage indicating where evacuation areas are
* public address speaker systems
* small parks that aren't always all that appealing but are open sand/gravel spaces with simple public toilets and sometimes solar panels these days for off grid power
* plenty of public toilets in places like convenience stores etc so that some will survive
* little storage sheds full of fire and emergency gear dotting the city
* even hand pump wells for water (not sure if you want to drink it but good for sanitation)
* stockpiles of food and supplies distributed in places like universities and schools
And, then basically every time you build or rebuild, take quakes into account. Things like increase set backs to make roads wider (eventually). It does help that much of Tokyo seems to be constantly in a churn of tear down and build up so the city keeps getting newer. Finally, redundancy (which costs a lot of money and is therefore a non-starter in many areas).
posted by Gotanda at 12:11 AM on April 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

MikeWarot: "Our house doesn't even have a foundation"

Unless your house is sitting on dirt you have some sort of a foundation. And balloon framed house is old enough that if it was sitting on dirt the sills would have rotted away.

If you can't see some sort of obvious foundation you might have a rubble trench or piling foundation. The former especially can be difficult to recognize.
posted by Mitheral at 12:18 AM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

As a California resident, I have a couple days worth of water and food stockpiled, as should everyone else in earthquake country, and the news of four high-profile earthquakes (three mentioned above, plus the 6.9 in Burma on the 13th) in as many days is hopefully motivation to do some level of emergency preparedness, no matter where you are.

But; one only has to look as far back as December of last year to find four earthquakes over magnitude 7.0 in a span of four days which is to say the past four large earthquakes are nothing special, geologically speaking. That's not to diminish the still-unfolding human tragedy, but to say earthquakes happen, and the latest spate are not a portent of "the big one" for San Francisco, Portland, New York City, Salt Lake City, or anywhere else.
posted by fragmede at 2:27 AM on April 17, 2016

The north Texas area has been hit with a lot of quakes, all seemingly caused by fracking, but when cities like Denton tried to ban fracking, the state legislature stepped in astonishingly fast to remind us that voters don't actually have rights if what voters want isn't what contributors to campaign coffers want.

I hope that forever silenced the line that the GOP is the party supporting "local control."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:09 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you want to earthquake proof a city, make all buildings, goods, cars, and whatnot out of paper - easily recyclable or disposable, and hopefully cheap to build with.

Building to a specification that will withstand a 1000 year storm/event relies on a storm stronger never occurring, which - based on probabilities means that it will eventually happen - maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow - maybe not even within those 1000 years. Building past that is really passing the buck.

The problem is that to build to specification there are cost prohibitive materials used in construction, resulting in a survivable but empty city - or having this survivable architectural Utopian city, where only those those that can afford to live, next to poorly constructed districts immediately outside this where all the common people live. Given that New York is already in that state and it doesn't meet the earthquake proof standards - expect an additional exodus of young working professionals further out, and thus pushing the poor even further out. This is the plight of urban sprawl now emphasized even more because of this need to ensure the survivablity of buildings and only those inhabitants instead of the survivablity of the city footprint.

Wow, there's just something so scummy and dirty about making a pristine tableau out of a city that irks me.

Don't get me wrong, thinking about how to engineer a city for the future makes perfect sense to a degree. The challenge is really how do you do it without all the graft generally involved with bilking anyone who is not ultra-rich to start.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:31 AM on April 17, 2016

Judging how it seems every government decided to shrug their shoulders on what to do with maintenance of infrastructure when austerity kicked in, I'm guessing the biggest problem will be when streets are too damaged to be used by regular rescue vehicles, along bridges collapsing and gas and water mains leaking. Won't be pretty (even with a mild earthquake).
posted by lmfsilva at 7:29 AM on April 17, 2016

To be honest, this little town of 10K that I live in that is 20 miles away from the second biggest city in the state... I don't know if I could even GET to that city if there was an earthquake here strong enough to collapse bridges. Every single route I can think of between here and there involves some pretty major infrastructure. There might be a way to get there that involves taking surface streets I am not aware of that go down and back up again. Something worth thinking about, really.

I don't think this area is very earthquake prone in general. But anywhere on earth can have an earthquake, given enough time.
posted by hippybear at 8:21 AM on April 17, 2016

Unless your house is sitting on dirt you have some sort of a foundation. And balloon framed house is old enough that if it was sitting on dirt the sills would have rotted away.

I bought a house that survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake largely because it didn't have a foundation to fall off of. It was built in 1883 from first growth redwood and the termites just couldn't eat it. It was pretty hard to drive a nail as well.

Restoration involved lifting it, putting a foundation beneath it and rebuilding the skirt with modern lumber. Within a decade we needed to have it tented for termites.
posted by sjswitzer at 4:29 PM on April 17, 2016

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