Tuesday, 7 April 2009

In Praise of Flexibility: Earthquakes, and Lessons for Living

Several questions arise from the images broadcast widely of the earthquake in Abruzza. Among them are: which buildings were the most damaged? Given that the Richter scale rating of 5.8-6.3 is one which has been surpassed frequently elsewhere, is there a reason why the death toll is so high? Already voices are being raised in Italy, asking what can be done to avoid repetition of such high loss of life.

Part of the reason may be due to the hour the quake struck: 3:40 a.m. when many people were sleeping and had no chance to flee outside. Part also may be due to the fact that old masonry buildings do not withstand shocks very well. But looking at the footage on Italian TV, it also appears that one modern building was devastated: is this due to faulty application of building codes? Certainly quakes of similar force have prompted much more stringent requirements in Japan and California.

The geological tensions which cause quakes are better understood than they once were, but still much is unknown, including how to predict them. It should be remembered, too, that quakes can and do occur with force in places which are not known for them. When I was growing up in California, we felt a half dozen quakes of various sizes, but none of them shook me the way two others did, far from California. One of my earliest memories is of a 6.3 quake in the Seattle-Tacoma area when I was three. The other occurred in the Saguenay region of Quebec in 1988, registering 6.8.

The moral? That the forces in the earth can be felt in many places, and we are foolish not to appreciate each day we are given. And, also, make sure that we build wisely. That doesn't mean bulding rigidly though, since wood frame structures often come through quakes well because they can move a bit without breaking. Second moral: flexibility is good for survival too.


lagatta à montréal said...

Well, there isn't much building lumber lest standing either in Italy or anywhere in the Mediterranean basin (think of recent major quakes in Turkey and in Algeria), but there are other ways of erecting flexible buildings. It seems that a lot of the major damage involved fairly recent buildings - one shocking case is the student residence, which as a recent, public building should have been held up to stringent earthquake code. I suspect we'll find a lot of problems due to corruption and what one calls in Italian "abusive" construction - that is, building illegally, without permits, often too close to cliffs or loose soil - and tacit approval of this building from the authorities.

L'Aquila is a strikingly beautiful town, set in a landscape of high mountains. I'm so sad about this.

Did you know that a lot of Montrealers hail from "gli Abruzzi", Abruzzo and Molise, the small region just to the south, that until 1963 were a single region? There are lots of Abruzzesi and Molisani in Montreal in paricular.

Mary Soderstrom said...

I hadn't realized that Abruzzi was so well represented among Montrealers.

You're probably right about the paucity of wood for wood frame constsruction around the Mediterranean (in 1755 when Lisbon was rebuilt a lot of the wood was sailed around from Northern Europe) but the principles of frame construction still hold. And the question of vigilance to avoid shoddy construction is always pertinent.