Americas

Engineers vs. God: Chile’s building codes take edge off massive earthquake

A family allows their campfire to go out after spending the night on the top of this hill on the outskirts of Illapel, Chile, early Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. Thousands of residents of this small city in northern Chile slept outside after a powerful earthquake late Wednesday destroyed their homes, forced more than 1 million to evacuate and killed at least eight people in the quake-prone South American nation.
A family allows their campfire to go out after spending the night on the top of this hill on the outskirts of Illapel, Chile, early Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. Thousands of residents of this small city in northern Chile slept outside after a powerful earthquake late Wednesday destroyed their homes, forced more than 1 million to evacuate and killed at least eight people in the quake-prone South American nation. AP

At his engineering firm in Santiago, Chile, on Thursday — as aftershocks continued to roll through the city — Eduardo Santos was feeling pretty proud of his industry.

Wednesday night’s 8.3-magnitude earthquake had left 11 dead and a 175 houses damaged. While the toll wasn’t negligible, the quake — the world’s strongest this year — might have leveled less-prepared countries.

“Our structural engineering is world class,” Santos, a 62-year-old engineer at the firm Ingenería Estructuras Consultoría, said by phone. “And it’s made in Chile.”

The long, narrow South American nation sits in the dreaded “Ring of Fire,” plagued by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It has the dubious distinction of being home to the world’s largest-recorded earthquake, a 9.5-magnitude monster in 1960.

And over the years, it has developed some of the most stringent anti-seismic building codes on the planet. It’s those regulations — and Chile’s ability to react to earthquakes — that experts credit with reducing casualties.

Wednesday’s quake struck at 7:45 p.m. about 27 miles west of the town of Illapel, which lies 175 miles north of the capital. Within minutes, tsunami warnings were issued along the Pacific seaboard and more than 1 million people were evacuated.

While the earthquake left almost a dozen dead, it could have been far worse. By comparison, the 8.1-magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal in April killed more than 9,000 people.

“Chile has very good building codes — up to the standards that any highly active earthquake country might have,” said John Bellini, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver. “That’s why Chile hasn’t had a lot of deaths from this earthquake and others in the recent past.”

And while he praised the country’s emergency-response capabilities, it’s the engineering that makes a difference, he said.

“If you have poor building codes, the best emergency system in the world is not going to help,” he said. “That’s really the key to the whole thing.”

Santos described his country as a moving, shaking laboratory. After each earthquake, damage is surveyed, lessons are learned and building codes are updated.

In 2010, an 8.8-magnitude earthquake killed almost 600 people and left large swaths of the country incommunicado and without power. Even that death toll, however, was something of a vindication, Santos said.

Of all the fatalities, only 30 occurred in modern buildings, he said.

That earthquake also brought damaging tsunamis. As a result, building codes along the coast were revamped requiring structures to be further back from the sea and more resistant.

Santos said Chile began thinking about earthquakes and architecture as far back as the 1930s, but it came out with its first anti-seismic building regulations in the 1970s.

“It’s an evolving process,” he said. “Every time there’s a new earthquake we learn something and we start modifying our code.”

Maria Arguello, a longtime Miami resident who has been living in Santiago for work, was on the 12th floor of an office block in the capital of Santiago when the earthquake struck.

“There were a lot of people in the office at that time, and it started to shake and we thought it was just a small tremor,” she said. “But it kept getting bigger and bigger.”

Once the building quit moving, she joined the multitudes huddled on the street.

As of Thursday afternoon, Chile’s National Seismology Center had recorded more than 60 tremors and aftershocks.

“They haven’t stopped since the earthquake,” Arguello said. “Not an hour goes by without an aftershock.”

The terrifying swaying of office buildings is by design. In essence, they bend so that they don’t break.

President Michelle Bachelet declared a state of emergency for the hardest-hit regions and was expected to be surveying the damage, particularly near the epicenter town of Illapel, which has a population of about 30,000.

The municipality of Illapel, near the epicenter, said it had confirmed one death and that about one-third of the population had been affected by the earthquake.

The port city of Coquimbo, which was hit by tsunami waves 13 feet high, also saw serious damage, emergency authorities said.

“Once again we’ve had to face a tough blow from nature,” Bachelet told local media. “Today our main focus is on supporting and helping people.”

As the better-than-expected damage reports were still coming in Thursday, Santos said his work also has more to do with people than concrete and steel.

“Our job is to save lives,” he said. “And I think we have reason to be happy today.”

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