How to topple a building: mix extra sand into the concrete so the cinder blocks are more filler than stone, and skip the rebar all together.

That’s how buildings were constructed in Kathmandu, Port au Prince, Izmir, and any of a dozen cities like them, and why earthquakes there were so deadly.

It’s not for lack of knowledge or building codes. These places had both. What they didn’t have was political or social stability, which made it easy to ignore the lives of poor people whenever money could be made.

Greedy contractors and corrupt public officials are certainly to blame. But look deeper and the fault lines start to blur. Maybe the building inspector took a bribe because he didn’t earn enough money to feed his own family. Or the migrant who came looking for work entered the lease even after hearing that the building next door collapsed a few nights before seemingly out of no-where. But really, what choice is there when all the buildings are the same? When this is all you can afford because the little money you make goes back to the family you left behind in the village stricken by drought.  “Structural defects” describe more than the buildings in some of these places.

So, when the earthquake hits, the buildings fall down. Hard and fast. And lots of people die. In a moment.

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This is what I fell asleep thinking about last night. So you can imagine my surprise when the boys and I happened upon an “earthquake exhibit” at the Science Center this morning. No kidding! The exhibit lets you construct a building out of little blocks on top of a platform that shakes when you turn it on. So here’s a clip of the two buildings we made. We used plastic spokes as rebar in the building on the left, and no rebar in the one on the right. See if you can count how long the one without rebar remained standing after we turned the machine on at the 4 second mark.

-Kathy Bergin