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Poverty, Code Issues Contribute to Extensive Earthquake Damage in Turkey

BUFFALO, N.Y., August 19, 1999--Building collapses following Tuesday's earthquake in Turkey probably were caused, in part, by inadequate building materials and by problems with establishment and enforcement of proper building codes, according to researchers at the University at Buffalo and the university's Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER).

xx5.jpg (66505 bytes)Gokhan Pekcan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in earthquake engineering at UB and the center, and a native of Turkey, explained that when people move to the cities from rural villages, they have few financial resources. "Often, they end up building their own homes or buying or renting relatively less expensive houses, which may typically be constructed with inadequate materials, leaving them especially vulnerable to earthquake damage," he said.  "They build mostly reinforced concrete and masonry buildings, but they may not make them strong enough."

This accounts for the fact that in the more affluent areas of Istanbul, for example, many buildings and high-rises were left unharmed while in poorer areas, devastation was widespread.  "Many of the apartment buildings also have 'soft' first stories, meaning that because they contain open garages or storage spaces on the ground floor, they have no significant walls that can support the weight of the structure during an earthquake," he said. "Moreover, in some of the buildings, inadequate reinforcement in supporting columns resulted in the collapse of entire structures."

At the same time, the UB researchers said, while Turkey's building codes have improved during the last 20 years, they are not well-enforced.

"There are buildings in Turkey that were built during the last 20 years that still failed during this quake," said Andrei Reinhorn, Ph.D., professor and chair of UB's Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering and an MCEER researcher. "The codes are good, but there is inadequate supervision of the inspection process."peckhan.gif (5046 bytes)

Reinhorn, who is an expert on developing earthquake mitigation systems and seismic codes for buildings, lived for 16 years in Israel, and said that the problem is widespread throughout the Middle East and in rapidly developing areas with few resources."My colleagues in Turkey have told me that they have, for years, warned authorities about the safety of buildings there and no action has been taken," he said. He added that in the quake's aftermath, there undoubtedly will be controversies about the amount of damage sustained and how much of it could have been prevented, had there been better enforcement of building codes.

He noted that similar issues exist in the U.S., although perhaps not to the same extent. "Enforcement is a bit better in the U.S., but 90 percent of construction in the U.S. is residential, which is not built under the close supervision of any structural engineer. My house, for example, has never been seen by an engineer, except for the fact that I live in it."Even in areas that are prone to quake damage, like on the West Coast, he said, residential construction does not follow any seismic codes.

So could damage from a similar-sized quake in the U.S. be just as catastrophic? According to Reinhorn, probably not, since the population density in the U.S. is much lower.  "In this country, residential construction is based on single-family homes, not multi-family apartment buildings, so when you do have a disaster, the severity of the losses would be somewhat lower," he said.

Reinhorn added, "MCEER seeks to help establish earthquake-resilient communities by considering the societal and economic aspects involved in the design and retrofit of buildings and infrastructure, as well as in emergency response and recovery efforts. These efforts will perhaps lead to changes in construction practices that include engineering solutions that are economically feasible and political and socially acceptable to community residents."

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