City Journal

Claire Berlinski
1 Million Dead in 30 Seconds
In an increasingly urbanized world, earthquakes threaten unprepared cities with mass destruction.
Summer 2011
The January 2010 earthquake leveled nearly 100,000 buildings in Haiti.
Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos
The January 2010 earthquake leveled nearly 100,000 buildings in Haiti.

Seismic risk mitigation is the greatest urban policy challenge that the world confronts today. If you consider that too strong a claim, try to imagine another way in which bad urban policy could kill a million people in 30 seconds. Yet the politics of earthquakes are rarely discussed, and when discussed, widely misunderstood. Take the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, which released 600 million times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb. The ensuing partial meltdown of the Fukushima reactor prompted international hysteria about nuclear power, but few seemed to realize that a far deadlier threat had been averted. As seismologist Roger Bilham has aptly put it, houses in seismically active zones are the world’s unrecognized weapons of mass destruction—and Japan’s WMDs didn’t go off. Its buildings—at least those that weren’t swept away by the accompanying tsunami, a force of nature against which we are still largely helpless—remained standing, and the people inside survived.

That so few buildings collapsed in the earthquake was a human triumph of the first order. It showed that countries can make great progress in seismic risk mitigation; in the Kobe earthquake of 1995, 200,000 buildings collapsed. But cities around the world seem happy to ignore the earthquake threat—one that is only growing as the cities themselves get bigger and bigger.

In January 2010, an earthquake struck Haiti and destroyed nearly 100,000 buildings. Hospitals, schools, government buildings, jails, hotels, churches, whole neighborhoods—all crumbled, entombing everyone inside. After the quake, I received an e-mail from a scholar of international relations. “It’s odd that earthquakes tend to occur frequently in countries that can least afford them,” she wrote.

You could only write such a sentence if you had never given the matter much thought. It isn’t odd; in fact, it isn’t true. Mother Nature doesn’t have it in for the poor. Rather, earthquakes come to our attention only when they are disasters, and they are disasters only when they strike dense urban areas full of badly made buildings. Last year, there were a number of earthquakes larger than the one that leveled Port-au-Prince, but they didn’t make the news because they happened in the middle of nowhere. California’s Loma Prieta quake, the “World Series earthquake” of 1989, was as big as the one in Port-au-Prince. It killed so few people by comparison—only 63—because San Francisco’s buildings and infrastructure were well designed and strong.

In the wake of the Kobe quake, Japanese engineers took extensive measures to reinforce buildings and infrastructure. They installed rubber blocks under bridges. They spaced buildings farther apart to prevent domino-style tumbling. They introduced extra bracing, base isolation pads, hydraulic shock absorbers. A minute before the March earthquake, automatic seismic monitoring systems sent warnings to Japanese cell phones. Elevators glided obediently to the nearest floor and opened. Surgeries were halted. Videos from Tokyo show skyscrapers swaying gracefully, like cornstalks in the wind. Not one collapsed.

Likewise, the aftershock that struck Christchurch, New Zealand, this past February was deadly, but the astonishing part of that story isn’t that several of the city’s buildings collapsed; it’s that most of them did not. The peak ground acceleration—a measurement of how much the ground shakes—was immense, one of the highest ever recorded. Something like that would have flattened most cities. New Zealand’s strict and well-enforced building codes saved Christchurch from annihilation.

But many of the world’s biggest cities are built more like Port-au-Prince than like Christchurch, and many are at massive seismic risk. Eight of the world’s ten biggest cities are built on fault lines. There is a reason for this: people like to live near water and fertile ground. Over the millennia, seismic activity creates coasts, valleys that channel water, temperate microclimates. The human mind doesn’t work on geologic time, so people rarely ask themselves how exactly these attractions came into being.

The odds of more Haiti-scale destruction are growing by the day 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.

Just as we know how to build airplanes that don’t crash, we know how to construct buildings that don’t collapse. If you want to learn how to do it, grab some marbles and a Teflon baking sheet and follow the sixth-grade lesson plan on Discovery Online. We also know which cities are most at risk: Bogotá, Cairo, Caracas, Dhaka, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jakarta, Karachi, Katmandu, Lima, Manila, Mexico City, New Delhi, Quito, and Tehran. Los Angeles and Tokyo are prime candidates for a major quake, but they will probably survive, since they are well built—though L.A. could do better. New York is at greater risk than people realize. In 2008, researchers at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory published a paper in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America noting, among other things, that the Indian Point nuclear power plant was sitting on top of two active seismic zones. The odds of a quake big enough to cause a Fukushima-like disaster there are small. The odds of a quake big enough to take down houses constructed under pre-1995 building codes are not. If you live in an old building—and particularly if you live near 125th Street, where the fault line runs—you might note that.

So 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.

It’s tempting to think that people in certain countries are cavalier about the risk because they’re poor. The argument goes like this: safe houses cost more to build than cheap ones do. Cement watered down with sand stretches further. People in poor cities don’t have the money to build safe houses; or if they do, they have decided to use it to mitigate more immediate risks. Before the earthquake in Haiti, it certainly wasn’t possible to say that the odds of a catastrophic quake were 100 percent; the odds, however, that a substantial percentage of the population would die prematurely of malnutrition and preventable childhood disease were 100 percent. No one there could have been persuaded, before the earthquake, to prioritize sound building construction over food.

If wealth were all there were to it, the solution to the problem would be, if not simple, at least obvious. To prepare for an earthquake, promote economic development and cross your fingers. When your country becomes wealthy enough, the problem will solve itself. If we followed this argument to its natural end, we would conclude that the best seismic risk reduction strategy is market liberalization, the reduction of the state sector, and a growth-oriented economic policy that aims to expand the middle class as quickly as possible. In a diversified, developed economy, so this logic goes, private actors will promote earthquake safety and will do so more efficiently than the government. Insurers will not insure improperly retrofitted buildings. Businesses will safeguard their investments by demanding that they be housed in structurally sound buildings. And middle-class people will have the good sense to demand, build, and live in properly retrofitted buildings, since nobody wants to die in an earthquake. Other policy recommendations would follow: for example, don’t press for heavy-handed zoning laws or further regulation of the construction industry because regulation, as every economist knows, imposes economic costs, and any drag on growth is the last thing you need in an economic race against time.

This theory has been voiced in Istanbul, where I live. Mustafa Erdik, chairman of the Department of Earthquake Engineering at Boğazici University, has suggested that Turkey’s best hope is rapid economic growth. If it happens fast enough, he prays, property owners will be able to replace the worst housing stock before the ground starts shaking. If we look at it this way, we see seismic risk reduction as a paradox: the best way to reduce the risk is to ignore it.

The idea is tempting and elegant. But it’s wrong.

Wealth, in and of itself, is not enough to get people to take earthquakes seriously. Here is the evidence. On February 27, 2010, an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale struck near the city of Concepción, in Chile. While the epicenter was not at the heart of the city, this quake was 100 times bigger than the one that leveled Port-au-Prince. It was so massive that it shortened the length of the day by 1.26 microseconds and moved the earth on its axis by eight centimeters. When it was over, the entire city of Concepción had been moved three yards to the west.

The death toll from this monster was 521. Each death was its own disaster, of course, but the number was nevertheless astoundingly small for an earthquake that, by all rights, should have destroyed Chile as a whole. So minimal was the damage that the Chileans rejected all offers of foreign aid; they didn’t need it. Chile did so well because its building codes are some of the strictest and most advanced in the world and because the codes do not merely exist on paper—they are enforced.

Now consider Turkey. Like Chile, Turkey is no stranger to earthquakes. In 1509, an earthquake killed between 5 and 10 percent of Constantinople’s population. The Ottomans called it Kıyamet-i Suğra, the Minor Judgment Day. Since then, the city has suffered serious quake damage 11 times, most recently at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1939, moreover, came the first of what have now been seven earthquakes on the Anatolian fault line, each exceeding 7 on the Richter scale. Every time a major rupture occurs on the fault, it transfers stress further along the line, making a subsequent earthquake more likely. The quakes are marching westward from eastern Turkey toward Istanbul. The most recent took place in 1999, near Izmit, a city about 60 miles from Istanbul; as many as 45,000 were killed, and 600,000 were left homeless.

There is not a geologist alive who doubts that a major earthquake is likely to hit Istanbul soon. In 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey put the odds of its happening within 30 years at 62 percent; other survey teams give it 70 percent. Erdik has estimated that it will kill between 200,000 and 300,000 people. The cost of the cleanup—$50 billion would be an optimistic estimate—will surely set Turkey’s economy back decades. It will be a political cataclysm, with massive ramifications for the entire region.

Every day, I walk past buildings in Istanbul that are clearly unsound. I see ground floors, for example, with walls or columns removed to make way for store displays, violating one of the most important principles of earthquake-resistant construction. There are vast neighborhoods filled with illegal, flimsy structures called gecekondu, which means “landed overnight.” The gecekondu, which range from crude shanties to concrete multistory apartment blocks, house hundreds of thousands of rural migrants who have come to Istanbul seeking work over the past decade. Gecekondu aren’t built by engineers. They tend to be built on bad soil. They are packed with children.

Even buildings approved by engineers, warned a recent study by the Turkish Chamber of Civil Engineers, are largely not built to code; only half are earthquake-proof. The chamber also warned that 86 percent of the city’s hospitals were at high risk of collapse. Turkey’s biggest builders have freely admitted to using shoddy materials, such as sea sand and scrap iron, in buildings made of reinforced concrete. In fact, construction standards here are so lousy that buildings regularly collapse without the aid of an earthquake.

Is it because Turkey is poor? Per-capita GDP in Chile this year is $15,867. In Turkey, it is $14,077. That’s not a huge difference.

The point becomes even clearer if we consider “nonstructural seismic risk mitigation”—the little things, besides building better houses, that people can do to protect themselves. These steps aren’t expensive. For example, according to studies done by the Istanbul Seismic Risk Mitigation and Preparedness Project, a quake of the size widely predicted would rupture 30,000 natural gas lines. In the aftermath of a stressful event, people do a predictable thing: they smoke. Smoking near a ruptured gas line is a good way to start a fire. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sign or TV commercial anywhere in Istanbul saying, “If it happens, don’t light up.”

Nor have I seen more than a handful of commercials or public service announcements reminding people what else they should do in an earthquake—duck, cover, and hold on. Last year, I stayed in a hotel in Palo Alto. The first thing I noticed in my room was a card on the desk, labeled earthquake safety tips for visitors, with instructions in Spanish and English as well as diagrams. It also provided the phone number of the Office of Emergency Services in Palo Alto in case I had any questions. I’ve never once seen anything like this in a Turkish hotel room.

While it is very expensive to tear down and replace, or reinforce, inadequate housing, it isn’t expensive at all to bolt heavy goods to the walls or to move heavy furniture away from beds. Rarely is this done in Istanbul. The odd thing is that everyone does fear the coming quake. Last year, a minor jolt panicked the city and sent the Turkish word for earthquake, deprem, to the top of Twitter’s trending topics, but almost no one knows what to do if it happens, or cares to know. I know many people in Istanbul who are wealthy enough to live in safer buildings but don’t.

They are fully aware of the risk. When asked why they don’t do anything about it, they shrug. They’re fatalistic. Most Turks think day to day, not long-term.

Contrast Turkey with Japan, where “there’s no such thing as an honest mistake,” as one American who has lived there for years puts it. “Every mistake is a moral failure. In other words, you should have worked harder, you should have prepared better, you should have been more careful. So even their [emergency] practice drills have to be rehearsed. Everybody has practiced.” After the March quake, journalist Kirk Spitzer, who lives in Japan, wrote about the culture of earthquake preparedness there: “Our shelves are lined with rubberized material to keep glasses and plate-ware from sliding; nothing fell over and broke, not even delicate champagne glasses we brought from Paris. Elsewhere, floor-mounted latches kept bedroom and hallway doors from slamming or breaking loose. Picture rails built into the ceiling kept even heavy frames from crashing to the floor.”

Ordinary, middle-class Japanese people take these steps to protect their drinking glasses. Many museums in Istanbul fail to take similar steps to protect priceless sculptures, ceramics, and cuneiform. They sit unsecured on pedestals or underneath light fixtures that would fall on them in heavy shaking. The storage rooms, according to people who work in them, are a hazard zone. This isn’t a matter of comparative wealth; it’s a matter of culture.

You see a similar failure to turn worry into action at the governmental level. Local officials in the municipality of Beşiktaş have elaborate earthquake plans—they showed them to me in a PowerPoint presentation. But they exist only on PowerPoint, where they have existed since 2008 without any progress made toward implementation. This is characteristic of the great majority of earthquake plans drawn up in Turkey since the 1999 quake. No one knows about them—certainly not the public; they look quite thorough, but they do not translate into action. No one seems to have the authority to act on the plans. No one seems to have the authority to release whatever funds would be needed to implement them. No one seems even to know who would have that authority. The funds and grants awarded by various international development agencies for retrofitting and earthquake preparation simply disappear.

Fatalism kills. Short-term thinking kills. But above all, corruption kills. On the anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham published an extraordinary study in Nature. Using data from Transparency International’s Corruptions Perception Index, they calculated that 83 percent of all deaths from building collapses in earthquakes in the past 30 years took place in countries that were “anomalously corrupt”—that is, in countries that were perceived to be more corrupt than you would predict from their per-capita income.

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 contractors’ 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.

In China, as you’d expect, tort law is a joke. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which left nearly 90,000 dead or missing, Chinese courts dismissed a lawsuit filed by parents of children crushed to death in collapsed schools. Those who protested were locked up. And in Turkey, the average citizen wants nothing to do with the court system, believing it intimidating, incomprehensible, rigged, and too expensive and time-consuming to use—which it is. I speak from experience, having taken to court a construction company that knocked down a wall of the building I lived in, rendering it unsafe for habitation. I’ve been suing them for years without issue. Last October, charges against the officials who approved the construction of a school that collapsed in a 2003 earthquake, killing 64 students and a teacher, were dropped, owing to the expiration of the statute of limitations. The amount that it costs to open a lawsuit represents a substantial portion of an average Turk’s annual income.

When the Haiti earthquake struck last year, I had a personal reason to be alarmed: my brother and his family lived in Port-au-Prince. They survived, but many of my sister-in-law’s coworkers were crushed to death. From Washington, D.C., I translated text messages sent to an emergency number set up to help search-and-rescue teams locate victims. The messages were awful: “To anyone in the MontJoli-Turgeau area. . . .

Jean-Olivier Neptune is caught under rubbles of his fallen house. . . . He is alive but in very bad shape.” “Please anyone let me know if my uncle Dr. James Plantin who resides in Jacmel is OK. . . . He is not answering the phone.” “Hotel Montana at Rue Franck Cardozo in Petionville collapsed. 200 feared trapped.” “My mother is part of a medical team that had just arrived in Port-au-Prince. We received a text that she and two others are trapped beneath the rubble.”

A quarter of a million people were killed in Haiti, and God knows how many more were maimed, physically and emotionally, by collapsing buildings. This will happen again and again, in larger and larger numbers, with ever-weepier celebrity telethons to accompany the carnage. But you’ll see no calls to save the world from corrupt building practices on your grocery bags at Whole Foods. Nobody will suggest that the American government enter into seismic risk reduction treaties with other nations.

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.

Claire Berlinski, a City Journal contributing editor, is an American journalist who lives in Istanbul.

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