Who is Accountable? Earthquake prone regions present governments with a challenge

By Edwina Ross

It is the responsibilities of governments to ensure new structures comply with the rigorous building standards of the day, and where necessary, to adjust them for regions requiring specific consideration.  

But is it the responsibilities of governments to apply contemporary standards to existing structures?
This is an edgy question, particularly in the wake of the recent earthquake which devastated parts of Italy on the 24th August.


The question, however, must be tackled; earthquakes rattle the planet’s crust relentlessly. Consider http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/. In the last 30 days they note down 18 ‘significant’ quakes, from Bowen (ENE) in Australia, to Gisborne (NE) in New Zealand, to Mutata (ENE) in Colombia, to W of Chauk in Burma, to mention just a few. The following link highlights the problem http://ds.iris.edu/seismon/; it includes a view of earthquake frequencies and their magnitudes around the world.

Earthquakes can be innocuous if located far from human habitation (even when their MMS readings are high), but in populated areas the results can be devastating.  The horror of human loss and injury, the destruction of homes, schools, churches and businesses is bitterly confronting. The despair is exacerbated when the risk to an area was already understood, based on local seismicity and previously documented events. In these scenarios it is not surprising that the publics’ pathos becomes coloured by anger and governments are blamed.

Many of the Italian buildings in this recent earthquake zone were, sadly, erected prior to the emergence of building codes; in fact countless were historically significant and very beautiful too. These factors will have contributed to government complacency, perhaps providing a rather useful excuse for inaction.

The great Bard, William Shakespeare, comes to mind.  One of his famous quotes from his play As You Like It seems to be perfectly apt:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances, ….


An ancient reflection, perhaps, but timely - supportive and proactive politicians need to take their cues and make their entrances. The engineers are certainly there, but their genius needs to be applied through concerted government will.

The comments following an article often contain the real pearls of wisdom. In my reading for this piece I came across Colin Reynolds’ musings from the 31st August. I have edited it a little, but his insights remain:

At least 30 years ago or more, a structurally stiff polypropylene geogrid was demonstrated on a TV science programme as a prophylactic against movement induced building collapse - the main cause of death in earthquakes. Two application demonstrations showed promise. The first was for new buildings; geogrid was placed between and across building joints. The second was for old buildings and already widely used in Italy. It is laid vertically, in sheet form, under the stucco. Both of these were invisible on the finished building. More importantly, however, they both successfully delayed collapse and falling building components until the buildings could be evacuated.

I believe the geogrid was then made by the Tensar Company. I heard that the subsequent development work was passed by them to an Engineering University Department in Italy for further research but, as far as I know, this has not been developed further.

There are many and varied solutions to reinforcing existing structures and I apologise for this rudimentary consideration of the topic. We owe our thanks to engineers everywhere for their determined creativity and troubleshooting when it comes to matters such as this.

In a perfect world the engineering designs which prevent catastrophe and provide solutions when disaster strikes would be embraced by the other relevant and spirited ‘players’. These ‘players’ would make their ‘entrances’ and play their parts convincingly.

My thanks to the following articles and images for their insights