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October 27, 2011 - Stephen Browne
In Turkey people are struggling in the aftermath of Sunday's earthquake that measured 7.2 on the Richter scale. So far 523 are reported dead, with 185 rescued alive from the rubble of collapsed buildings, totals that will undoubtedly rise as more bodies are recovered. Hopefully at least some of the trapped victims are still alive.
The suffering is increased by the cold weather as thousands were rendered homeless by the destruction.
It could have been worse.
When I heard the news I remembered an article in the summer issue of City Journal by Claire Berlinski, an American journalist who lives in Turkey. The title of the article is, "One Million Dead in 30 Seconds."
Berlinski points out that well, earthquakes happen. We know pretty much where they are most likely to happen too. And we know they'll happen again, in California, Japan, Turkey, western South America, etc.
But the consequences of the earthquakes are different. The January 2010, earthquake in Haiti killed a quarter of a million people and destroyed nearly 100,000 buildings.
However, a month later the city of Concepcion, Chile experienced an earthquake 100 times bigger, measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale. A quake so powerful it actually shortened the length of the day by 1.26 microseconds, moved the earth on its axis 8 centimeters, and moved the city itself three yards west.
The death toll was a mere 521 and the city was still standing after it was over.
Note that in the recent earthquake in Japan, the death toll was extremely low compared to the Haitian earthquake, and most of the damage to buildings was done by the tsunami. One could point out the different consequences of the earthquakes that are almost routine in California as well.
The lesson is, earthquakes generally don't kill people directly, people are killed when the buildings they are in collapse on them. The difference in the death tolls and damage between Chile, Japan, and California versus Turkey and Haiti is, we know how to make buildings that don't fall down when the ground shakes.
Berlinski said the difference lies in a number of things: building codes and their enforcement, tort law defining liability of building owners, the degree of corruption in the local construction industry, and simple dissemination of information. Things like posted notices on what to do in an earthquake. Just letting people know not to light a cigarette where gas lines are likely to be ruptured would save a lot of grief.
We're used to thinking of earthquakes as something we really can't do anything about, but as Berlinski makes clear, there is a lot we can do.
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