Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes

@Dave Ewing:

The headline you won't be reading: "Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes". But it's the truth.

i-33657f4f5abd6b54e6d589cf5af8a202-USGSprojectedfatalities.jpgi-c944175b088dae97751b4a27cf47fa15-USGSprojecteddamage.jpgMy heart goes out to all the people affected the earthquake in Japan, and by the resulting tsunamis which have hit much of the Pacific basin. Heck, we even saw tsunami surge in the San Francisco Bay. The damage and deaths are still being tallied, but it's worth noting that the 5th largest earthquake on record hit near the densely populated coast of Japan, and so far there are a mere 400 deaths reported. The earthquake in Haiti last year, which was 100 times weaker, killed 230,000.

The charts here, borrowed from the USGS, show projected fatalities (above) and economic damage (below) from the earthquake. Below, a table showing how many people are likely to experience various intensities of earthquake damage. Over 2 million people felt severe shaking, shaking harsh enough to cause "moderate/heavy" damage to earthquake resistant structures, and heavy damage to vulnerable structures. Japanese building codes are stringent, and engineering standards are high.

It's remarkable how, even in photographs of coastal areas near the epicenter, areas hit by earthquake and tsunami at their harshest, many buildings are still standing.

The difference is that Japan has made a commitment to earthquake-safe buildings, and had the money to carry out that commitment. Haiti lacked the money to implement strict construction standards and a government capable of compelling compliance. Builders and government regulators in the United States have the power and the resources to ensure Japanese standards of construction apply here, but my sense from living in California for 3 years is that we may lack the commitment needed to do this.

And it's a shame, because we desperately need to upgrade our bridges anyway. Fully a quarter of bridges on public roads are either "structurally deficient" ("significant load-carrying elements are found to be in poor or worse condition due to deterioration and/or damage") or "functionally obsolete" (not up to code or operating with more traffic than design specifications planned for). Some of those bridges were designed and built as part of the Keynesian stimulus of the 1930s, and it's well past time for them to be replaced. One in five are older than 50 years old, and another one in five is at least 40 years old. Repairing, retrofitting, and replacing inadequate and unsafe bridges would cost $140 billion, a pittance relative to the damage which we will face as those bridges collapse spontaneously, or fall during earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. The San Francisco Bay Bridge is undergoing a seismic retrofit, but other bridges need attention too.

Not only would this make America safer, it would also inject money into the national economy, creating jobs on a massive scale. Given the persistent unemployment we face, that's nothing to sneeze at. And our roads are not all that needs work. Retrofitting buildings for earthquake safety and energy efficiency is vital for public safety and in order to mitigate climate change and control energy costs. A system of direct grants for states to use in bridge construction and low interest loans and grants for private contractors could provide a massive stimulus, jumpstart the green jobs market which should be booming but is awaiting supportive government policies, and put American workers back on the job.

"But Josh," I hear you thinking, "we haven't got a spare $140 billion for the bridges, let alone the money for building retrofits." Indeed, the focus in Congress right now is on cutting government spending, a goal shared by state legislatures. And that's a problem, because government spending, especially job-creating spending like I'm talking about here, is exactly what we need to get out of this economic crisis. And borrowing to build and repair infrastructure is probably the smartest sort of borrowing we could do. It's what most people and businesses do when they buy a home or an office or a factory. It makes sense, because the benefit of the purchase will persist for years to come, and it makes sense to spread the cost of the purchase across the time while it serves its purpose. If I'm to pass a debt on to my grandchildren, I'd like to also let them see what that money bought. I'd be proud to tell my grandkids that they're helping pay for the bridge we're driving across decades from now, and I'd hope they'll be proud of such things, too.

None of this is rocket surgery. For many of these bridges and buildings, plans for the retrofit and repairs may already be sitting in an architect's drawer, and environmental review may have already been completed. All it takes is money, and I can't be the only person out there who thinks this would be a great investment. Look how well it worked for Japan.


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Not a chance, far too logical! Curiously, here in little Cyprus (an island in the Mediterranean, part of Europe) we have strict earthquake codes and, unlike any other law, they are adhered to. The last "bad" earthquake we had (6.4), resulted in two deaths (an old couple who lived in a mud-walled building which they had neglected to repair) and one guy who panicked, jumped off a balcony and broke his leg.
I know that 6.4 is several orders of magnitude less than 8.9, but it is comparable to the Haiti 'quake.

Yes, $140B is a lot of money. I completely agree with you.

How much money goes into the "Security Theater" of TSA, again? And how much good use has that been, so far?

(Not to mention the damage already done and continuing to be done to the psyche and soma of the public travelling in or to/from North America, what with the humiliating, expensive, untested, unmonitored, mismanaged x-ray Nude-o-Scopes that target the bodies' sensitive surface regions with ionising radiation at unspecified intensities, which can reasonably be expected to result in a significant increase of cancers and other real health problems for many years down the road from today.)

(Also not to mention the obvious risk for dangerous disease distribution by unskilled scanning personnel, touching bare skin and hair without changing their gloves; wasn't there a measles scare just the other week?)

(Lastly, not to mention the acute increase in expected risk by people choosing to drive instead of flying.)

Thanks, but I think I'll stay away from US bridges AND airports yet a while. And I haven't even mentioned the word war ... oops!

You can also compare that to the shoddy construction methods in South Korea in the past: the 1994 Seongsu bridge and 1995 Sampoong building collapses, the Hwaseong campground fire and the Daegu Subway fire which happened when I was living in Seoul. (I currently live in Taiwan, just for the record. I'm Canadian but have lived in Asia for the past decade.)

In all four cases, some combination of incompetence, poor construction, poor maintenance and human failures (drinking on the job, attempted suicide) played a role in those disasters. There was the Namdaemun fire a few years ago, but that was a deliberate act of arson of a historical site, not failures on anyone's part.

Another disaster happened in Daegu about 18 months before the subway fire but was ignored by the western media because only a few dozen people died: cholera in the tap water caused by poor maintenance, bribery and slipshod testing and filtering systems. It's the exact same thing that happened in Walkerton, Ontario, in 2000, but on a larger scale.…

Such events don't occur in Korea as often now because they've "learnt their lesson", but only at the cost of their own people dying. Smart people learn from mistakes, but smarter people learn from other people's mistakes. The Koreans should have learnt from their Japanese neighbors...but I guess that's a result of Koreans' attitude of "ju-che" (self-reliance). Just look at how well North Korea feeds its people with "ju-che".

In motorsports, it's called "Tombstone technology": because somebody has to die before it's adopted. Resistance to proven means of preventing accidents and death comes because it's "too expensive" or "too difficult". Oft times, safety isn't that expensive and isn't difficult, as with HANS devices, but attitudes are too ingrained. It's only when the number of deaths becomes too large (or high profile, as in the case of Dale Earnhardt) that people finally wake up to reality.

The Minnesota bridge collapse should have been a wakeup call to the problem you're addressing, but Americans are too busy looking for someone to blame (or each other, in the case of political parties) instead of addressing the problem. Jailing someone is cheaper than spending money to fix a problem - just ask the mainland Chinese.

On a brighter note, I do remember a National Geographic documentary about earthquakes in China, and how one school principal fought to raise the equivalent of US$25,000 to retrofit his school with metal supports. His school and students survived the 2008 quake while many others in the same region died.

There is a tangible benefit for having a society that respects and advances excellent science and engineering. And a tangible cost for the society that does not.

It all goes for naught if you build a nuclear power plant or two on a fault line, no?

By Joy Defever (not verified) on 12 Mar 2011 #permalink

if you're going to avoid building a power plant "on a fault line" then there wouldn't be any nuclear power plants in japan, smart ass. next you'd suggest that people simply didn't live in japan.


David Ewing is mistaken, by the way:…

If you took away all the places to live that are near fault lines or in the tornado belt or where there are hurricanes or in flood plains, there would be very few places for people to live at all. I bet many of the commenters on this board live where at least one of these conditions apply.

I was thinking the same thing and I told everyone around me that, to stay "on your feet" at an 9.0 earthquake it's an accomplishment that not many can fulfill. Great post!

By Bbcversus (not verified) on 12 Mar 2011 #permalink

The situation may be less dire in California than in places where a bridge has, for instance, fallen down without an earthquake. Not to be chauvinistic, but a couple of items, not entirely anecdotal:

Ten years ago or so (the years do fly by) for at least 2 or 3 years, you could not drive very far north on 101 from San Francisco without encountering multiple construction projects with signs announcing that earthquake retrofit(*) was going on. A lot of bridges and overpasses definitely were rebuilt in that time.

Oh, and I'd forgotten till this moment: Richardson Bay off Mill Valley has a bridge that carries all northbound traffic from SF and also carried trans-Bay traffic that couldn't use the Bay Bridge (hello, Richmond) for some time after the 1989 quake. Several years later it received a massive increase in structural support with due attention to cross-bracing. Messed up the view from shore level with that stuff, tsk tsk.

While we're up, there was even some effective cooperation between the bureaucracy and people up in Mendocino County. Near Leggett (intersection with State 1) they fixed up the bridges on 101, and announced that a bridge on the parallel old highway would be shut down, not being possible to upgrade economically. Locals would just have to use the freeway. The locals were very unhappy, because that was waay out of the way. So they petitioned Caltrans, and met with them, and came up with an agreeable plan, in which the road would stay open until the Big One came and crashed the bridge, after which it would not be repaired or replaced. Risk of being on it when it fell: to be assumed by the users. Everyone was happy.

I don't, of course, know anything about the engineering standards or their enforcement, but a lot of effort went into the fixes, thanks to Loma Prieta, and the Richardson Bay and Leggett anecdotes are consistent with its being done conscientiously.

Could be worse.

(*) Was going to do a Lewis-Carroll-ish number on "retrofit" here, but this is too long already.

By Porlock Junior (not verified) on 12 Mar 2011 #permalink

Take it from a practicing structural engineer with a background in earthquake resistance design: suggesting that structures in California aren't designed to the highest standards for earthquake resistance is flat incorrect. Yes, the US infrastructure is aging. Yes, there's a lot of work to be done. But US engineers have spent the last two decades retrofitting existing structures for earthquake forces, and nowhere more so than California. In many cases, seismic retrofit has taken first priority over other rehabilitation work. The bigger risk is actually the parts of the country that haven't experienced a major earthquake recently, but are seismically vulnerable. Boston and Seattle come to mind.

And, if you'll excuse my hubris, one quick correction: the plans for retrofits wouldn't be sitting in an architect's drawer. They'd be sitting in an engineer's drawer!

Take it from a practicing structural engineer with a background in earthquake resistance design: suggesting that structures in California aren't designed to the highest standards for earthquake resistance is flat incorrect. Yes, the US infrastructure is aging. Yes, there's a lot of work to be done. But US engineers have spent the last two decades retrofitting existing structures for earthquake forces, nowhere more so than California. In many cases, seismic retrofit has taken higher priority over other rehabilitation work. The bigger risk is actually the parts of the country that haven't experienced a major earthquake recently, but are seismically vulnerable. Boston and Seattle come to mind.

And, if you'll excuse my hubris, one quick correction: the plans for retrofits wouldn't be sitting in an architect's drawer, they'd be sitting in an engineer's drawer! Architects are almost never involved with this sort of work.

Japan is a developed nation, though situated on highly sensible ground. But good structural engineering benefited on the right situation. The 1923 earthquake also which trigger off firestorms in Yokohama and Tokyo, suffocating and roasting thousands of people, encouraged the xenophobic wave that ended Japan's flirtation with the West and political liberalism - until the forced return espouse of American occupation, another historic external shock.

After reading your article, I now realize just how devastating the Japanese tsunami was. I really like the fact you supplied when saying how the recent tsunami was 100 times weaker than the earthquake in Haiti last year. That sentence really showed me the magnitude of the tsunami. Also, I thought it was a great idea of you to add all the data tables to provide the reader with some stats on the tsunami. On another note, I was amazed at how much the structure of a building could help keep a building intact during an earthquake. As was evident in Japan, it can do a great deal and can save a ton of money in rebuilding. Like you said, I think it would be very advisable to copy Japanâs architectural strategies on buildings in the US, especially areas prone to earthquakes. In the US, we are fortunate enough to have the money to fix our buildings, so why wouldnât we do so? You had some good ideas on how it would help save buildings in California, as well as help the job market as now more than ever, people are out of jobs. This should definitely be done, and doing so could save not only buildings, but hundreds of peopleâs lives.

I think itâs really impressive that because of technology today, we can save lives even in disasters. I am scared for America if a natural disaster like this happens! I donât think our building codes are that much up to par.

I agree that the attention the Japanese government paid to engineering and earthquake-safe infrastructure greatly contributed to the fewer number of deaths than in other quakes. In fact, for the first few hours after the earthquake occurred, I was under the impression that the effects were surprisingly small, because the number of deaths reported were so few. Japanâs commitment to building codes and engineering is clearly a factor that prevented a greater amount of damage and deaths. Japan also has the advantage of being technologically advanced and the experience of previous earthquakes from which it can learn engineering strategies. Your are right in saying that we should take a leaf out Japanâs book and apply it to our own country, especially in earth-quake prone areas such as California. Thanks for hour post.

Even though casualties have continued to rise, they are still nowhere near the 230,000 from a smaller quake in the immensely less populated island nation of Haiti. This is a part of the story that almost no one has remembered. As an avid follower of U.S. politics, I have always been perplexed by those who seem to consider all government spending as waste. These people forget that, at least in theory, that money is going right back to American citizens. If more people understood that government spending goes into projects such as fitting buildings to withstand earthquakes, then it would be hard to argue that this is the first thing that needs to be cut. As devastating as Japan is, some seismologists suggest that with three âcornersâ of the Pacific ring of fire having experienced major earthquakes within the last year, the American west coast is already overdue. Hopefully Americans have enough foresight to realize that expanding the deficit will never be worse than expanding a death toll.

I agree, but I think D. Heinz is correct about California. Caltrans went through a seismic retrofit program for all State-owned bridges and State law required all cities and counties to do the same.

Comparing the Japanese earthquake to the much less severe earthquake in Haiti is an excellent framing strategy. However, having to choose between deficit spending and cutting programs is a false dichotomy. It ignores the possibility of creating new tax brackets with higher tax rates. There are several people in America whose yearly income substantially exceeds the top $373K bracket. The best response to Republican rhetoric is to state that true fiscal responsibility is taxing people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates more AND making a long term investment in infrastructure and social programs.