Bad quake, worse buildings

Indians question building standards; death toll may reach 20,000 people.

As dusk descends on this commercial hub in India's westernmost state, residents of working-class slums place cots out on the sidewalks in front of their homes.

This is not an attempt to seek relief from the heat - temperatures are to reach 40 degrees F. tonight. Rather, it's a sign of how little trust many Indians in this city now have in the safety of their own homes. It's a well-founded concern, say experts, in the wake of the most powerful earthquake to strike India in 50 years.

Geologists note that a 7.9 magnitude quake is bound to cause devastation. Friday's quake was 64 times more powerful than the 1994 Northridge quake that shook southern California. But Indian building techniques and standards also appear to have exacerbated the destruction and the death toll, now estimated as high as 20,000 people.

In many cities, there are no set standards for constructing a building higher than two stories. Indeed, the brunt of the destruction in this city was borne by modern high-rise buildings.

"Anybody can become an architect, anybody can become a building contractor - they don't need a license. And the contractors are not following the building codes," says Vinod K. Sharma, academic head of the National Center for Disaster Management, a government agency. "The contractors are just constructing graveyards for the people."

The problem isn't limited to the state of Gujarat, which was hit hardest by the quake. A 1991 census report said that nearly 54 percent of all concrete buildings across the country were deemed highly vulnerable to earthquakes. In the town of Bhuj, just 12 miles from the epicenter of the quake, thousands are feared dead. Traditional mud dwellings and high-rises alike crumbled.

Here in Ahmedabad, electricity and communications are still cut off. The Indian Air Force is reportedly using kerosene lamps to light the runway for relief and cargo flights at the local air base.

The International Committee of the Red Cross reportedly has offered thousands of blankets. Assistance was also being accepted from the around the world; Pakistan is among those offering aid.

In this city of 5 million, some 80 buildings crumbled to the ground Friday morning, killing at least 500 people. Few of the new buildings, now reduced to rubble, were built according to the building code.

The primary occupants of the three- and four-story concrete apartment buildings that came tumbling down here were members of the upper and middle class.

Rakesh Wadwani remembers feeling the shake under his feet and yelling at his family to run. "The effect was terrific," he says. "All we could do was run and save our lives." None of the residents of his apartment block were killed.

But when three of the four stories of a nearby apartment building came crashing down on Harshad Shah's first floor apartment, five family members were killed. The remaining four huddled in the basement, saying prayers, for some 47 hours until rescuers arrived.

One of those who survived was family patriarch Chimilal K. Shah, a scrappy octogenarian, who came away with just scratches on his head from falling concrete. "I was praying to God, when all of a sudden everything collapsed," he says from his hospital bed. "I was thinking only to pray to God and I continued for 47 hours."

Urban planners hope that the grim devastation of Friday's quake will finally have a galvanizing effect on Indian citizens to demand higher standards of regulation and enforcement for new homes and workplaces.

"Those places where high-rises are being built, they should be earthquake resistant," says Saumitra Mukherjee at the School of Environmental Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "I would request that they not build more than two stories tall, and they use hollow bricks, which have a spring action."

Until now, Dr. Mukherjee says, most of India's building codes - some of which date back to the British colonial period - have been ignored by contractors and regulators alike. But this, he says, must change.

"This is not an earthquake prone zone. We have not designed buildings with earthquakes in mind," says Vijay Shah, head of a team of architects and civil engineers in Ahmedabad, which is now assessing which buildings are habitable and which are not.

Even if local homes and businesses had been designed for earthquakes, there is very little one can do to prepare for a quake of this magnitude, says Mr. Shah, president of the Gujarat Institute of civil Engineers and Architects.

Dr. Sharma disagrees. Of all the buildings built for foreign firms in the state of Gujarat, he says, not a single one was demolished by this quake. This is because foreign investors often demand that their facilities meet higher standards than Indian contractors generally aim for.

Even India's capital city of New Delhi, population 10 million, is built in an earthquake prone area, and is expected to double in population in the next 20 years. In a city where there are some 2,000 illegally built high-rise buildings, a temblor here could be devastating.

"If a 7.9 quake hits Delhi, there will be a loss of more than 50,000 in human lives," says Mukherjee.

Sharma calls this quake "a test case for building codes. The people who are following regulations are not affected."

But even people whose homes and businesses are not up to code could have them improved with a little government assistance, he says.

"If you could just spend 10 percent more on retrofitting buildings to make them stronger, you can save money on relief later. Even the weakest building can be made stronger with retrofitting"

"One should be hopeful," he adds. "Nobody was considering it before, but now people realize why this is important."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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