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    Local knowledge in earthquakes

    Virginia Postrel notes some factors that would have affected people’s behavior after this weekend’s earthquake in South Asia. She indicates yet more ways in which effective response to disasters requires local knowledge:

    In L.A., they also tell you to STAY INSIDE, but they also tell you that Central American immigrants are hard to keep inside during quakes, because if you live in a Third World country with bad construction, you’re safer outside. After the Northridge quake, which did relatively little damage to houses (CNN showed the same apartment building, which was practically on the epicenter, over and over again), one of the city’s big challenges was getting the Guatemalans and Nicaraguans to go back inside rather than camping out in parks.

    I wasn’t surprised that people living in mud-brick or unreinforced stone houses in poorer areas would be told to–or instinctively know they had to–flee outdoors. What I was curious about was that the collapsed building CNN was showing in Pakistan was part of a complex that was apparently home to many expats. Usually, foreign businesspeople and diplomats in Third World countries get the highest-quality built environments available. I kept straining to see whether there was rebar sticking out of the concrete, but I could never tell whether the visible dark stuff was that or just debris. (Virginia’s parenthetical struck me as darkly funny, since anyone who was watching CNN’s coverage this weekend saw the exact same footage of the collapsed Islamabad apartment tower again and again and again. Of course, being a 24-hour news network, CNN has to repeat things for those who are just tuning in. Still, every five minutes? It might have been more informative to have, every once in a while, NHK-style CGI of how earthquake waves pass to the surface and how different types of geological structures react to them. A lot of people outside earthquake zones don’t know that stuff, having studied s and p waves in eighth grade and promptly forgotten about them. I understand CNN’s predilection for human-interest angles, but there really wasn’t much pathos in the pile of white concrete they kept showing.)

    Of course, rebarred concrete is only one element of earthquake-resistant construction in the First World. Many buildings in Tokyo have a sort of Brutalist-lite style that shows off both the unadorned surface of the concrete and the diagonal metal bracing against shear. There’s also ground stability to consider. Atsushi and I are fortunate enough to live in a building that’s on relatively high, solid ground, but a lot of Tokyo is built over filled-in river and creek beds.

    Being a megalopolis that’s engulfed a broad seaside plain, Tokyo isn’t really a good analog for northeastern Pakistan. However, Japan did very recently have an earthquake disaster in an area that is, in fact, quite similar: last year’s series of strong quakes in Niigata Prefecture (here and here). Niigata, like most of Japan outside the Kanto and Kansai plains, is very craggy, with lots of people living in old-fashioned houses in remote areas accessed by narrow, cliff-hugging roads. The region also had the misfortune to be hit by earthquakes just after a particularly bad typhoon season had left a lot of ground waterlogged and unstable. There were many injuries and considerable property damage, but the final fatality count was, IIRC, below fifty.

    Japan not only has better construction standards but also bad-ass fire and rescue teams with high-grade equipment–not to mention educated citizens who know what to do in an earthquake or typhoon. Even though the Niigata quakes hit just after sundown on an autumn night, evacuation and rescue went as smoothly as could be expected. The scale of destruction in Pakistan is much worse than it was in Niigata, and it’s no wonder the government is having a hard time keeping up.

    On that subject, one final thing to note: Japan pledged aid in the form of equipment and manpower on the day of the quake, along with the US and the various Western European biggies. China, which not only has noisy pretensions to global leadership but is right next door to the affected region, took a full day to offer assistance, if the news outlets were reporting things in real time.

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