Carnage blamed on old buildings

March 10, 1995

European earthquake experts sent to Kobe, Japan, to carry out a detailed study of how, why and which buildings failed during January's earthquake say research on strengthening old buildings should be made a priority.

Team member Adam Crewe of Bristol University's earthquake engineering research centre believes thousands of lives could have been saved had old buildings been "retrofitted".

He said: "The problem of dealing with older buildings will always remain. The cost of retrofitting is high but I believe there is much that can and should be done by engineers in the way of developing cheaper ways of strengthening buildings to enable them to withstand earthquake damage better ."

The centre of Kobe, a port city, was only 15 kilometres from the epicentre, which measured 7.2 on the Richter scale, Mr Crewe said. "Some residential areas of Kobe were completely destroyed by the earthquake or decimated by fire. But buildings in the centre of the city were largely intact. There were many spectacular failures but for every building that needed demolishing there were several that needed little or no repair," he said.

Although most failures were in older structures not designed to withstand earthquakes, the research team found modern structures that performed badly. "These structures had been designed to modern Japanese codes, arguably the most advanced in the world. It shows that we engineers still have some way to go before being really confident in our ability to overcome earthquakes."

Mr Crewe recalled visiting a one hectare area west of Kobe that had been reduced to ashes. "I had thought that all the news reports had prepared me for the extent of the damage but only when I was standing in the midst of all the debris and twisted metal did the scale of the disaster really hit me."

More than 5,000 people died, 310,000 were evacuated and 20,000 buildings were destroyed.

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