A pair of earthquakes struck central Turkey and northern Syria yesterday, leaving a trail of devastation that has so far claimed almost 5000 lives, leaving many more injured or displaced. The death toll may yet rise to 20,000, predicts one WHO official.
Many of the casualties have been caused by collapsed buildings, with many still trapped in the rubble. At the time of writing, some 6000 buildings have collapsed across the region, with many more expected to follow suit.
According to experts, it isn’t just the magnitude of the earthquakes that has caused so much destruction, but structural failures within the buildings themselves.
As Colin Caprani, Lecturer in Structural Engineering, Monash University, puts it: “Earthquakes don’t kill, our collapsing structures do.”
According to the US Geological Survey, the population of southern Turkey lives in structures that are “extremely vulnerable” to earthquake shaking, where unreinforced brick masonry and low-rise concrete frames dominate.
This lack of structural integrity is partly why many of the videos flooding in from the disaster zone show buildings collapsing ‘like pancakes’.
Pancake collapses tend to ‘stack’ floors on themselves, bringing all their weight down nearly square on the floor below. These types of collapses are dangerous and severe, and their damage can complicate search-and-rescue efforts.
Most buildings in the affected region are completely ill-equipped to handle seismic activity, despite the fact that the Turkish government introduced new seismic building codes after the tragic İzmit earthquake of 1999 that claimed the lives of over 17,000 people.
Mark Quigley, associate professor of Earthquake Science at The University of Melbourne, says that many of the buildings appear to have failed at shaking intensities lower than the “design code”. This is because most of these buildings were never compliant to begin with. Most were constructed before the new codes came into effect, and seismic retrofitting of existing buildings is expensive, and hasn’t been a governmental priority, says Quigley.
The situation is worse in war-torn Syria, where 12 years of conflict have decimated building standards. David Rothery, a geoscientist at the Open University UK, says that war-damaged buildings have been rebuilt using low-quality materials or “whatever materials are available”, making them especially vulnerable to earthquakes.
While reconstruction after the quake may present an opportunity to rebuild more safely, there are many socio-economic challenges, including a lack of funding and political unrest, that may impede such efforts.
It remains to be seen whether the Turkey-Syria earthquake will lead to better implementation of current building safety codes, and the protection of civilian life.
Currently, aftershocks continue throughout the region, and rescue efforts continue.
Main image: Residents, aided by heavy equipment, search for victims and survivors amid the rubble of collapsed buildings in the village of Besnia, near the town of Harim, in Syria. (Image: The Guardian/Omar Haj Kadour)
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