The safest place during an earthquake: Expert advice

The safest place during an earthquake: Expert advice

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New York:  Professor Sudhir K. Jain is an expert in earthquake engineering, and member of several global groups devoted to reducing fatalities during earthquakes. His mantra, and that of many other earthquake experts, is simple: earthquakes alone don't kill people, poor engineering does.

India faces a particular conundrum, several international groups say, including the O.E.C.D in this report, because "it has produced some of the finest structural engineers in the world yet has not solved some of the fundamental problems common to other countries in the area."
Professor Jain's National Information Center of Earthquake Engineering, provides guides on earthquake-proof building in English, Hindi, and Oriya.

Q. We've experienced an increase in seismic activity in northern India in recent months, should we be bracing for a massive quake in the near future?

A. I don't think one can say there is increased activity. It is a matter of random occurrences.

There is huge geological activity going on in the Himalayas. They have been and will continue to remain a location for major earthquakes. This recent quake is not a surprise, nor is it the largest they are capable of producing.

There are certain places in the Himalayas that are highly vulnerable. There are two or three big gaps which have not fractured in the past hundreds of years. For example, in the extreme northeast there was an earthquake in 1950, and before that in 1897. There was an earthquake in Bihar in 1934, but not since then. Then, to the west of Bihar, scientists think there is potential for a big earthquake.

The two sides [the Indo-Australian tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate] are moving towards each other and from time to time they need to adjust, like two human beings who have small resentments building up, and one day they just shout at each other.

Q. There was a lot of discussion after the Gujarat quake of 2001, which killed about 20,000 people, about improving India's preparedness for earthquakes. Has that happened?

A. After every earthquake, there is a lot of attention paid to the subject. People like you and me start to talk to each other, the politicians and officials talk - but all of that lasts for a limited amount of time, then something else becomes more important.

After 2001 a lot of nice things happened but they were not enough.

The earthquake is not the problem, the problem is the buildings. We are not making our building industry move up in terms of construction practices to make them more earthquake-resistant.

One can make a list of what needs to change, but if I was to name one thing, it would be that we have not started enforcement of building codes. I am not aware of any major city in the country which has a municipal authority which has set up this enforcement, or even said they want to do this enforcement.

Q. What is preventing that from happening?

A. Many times people think that this is unnecessary, they are not convinced there is a benefit, and they feel that all the people who are saying this should be done come from the earthquake building industry.

Then there is also a problem of governance. The way municipal corporations (which oversee India's cities) work, they are overloaded, and they don't have enough resources.

Q. How has the huge rise in land prices in many parts of Northern India in recent years impacted building standards?

A. As a rule our building construction quality has been going down. There is a more and more casual attitude in the industry.

Q. We've also seen a huge amount of major infrastructure built in recent years - bridges, overpasses, metro lines, etc. How do you view their construction standards, earthquake wise?

A. They are built by more formal construction industry players, and have much better engineering. I'm sure there is always room for improvement, but by and large our bridge and major infrastructure construction industry is doing okay.

Q. What is the safest place to be during an earthquake, if you are indoors?

A. One can go under strong furniture. Under a strong table or bed, for example. Generally the experience has been that when a building collapses, and the roof falls on a table and you are sitting under the table you might survive.

If I was living in a one story house, naturally I would try to get out.

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