Global Disaster Preparedness: Coping with Earthquakes in Afghanistan

Earthquakes, flooding, and hurricanes can occur anywhere, and humans can make good decisions to lower the odds of hazards turning into disasters. Technology can assist in identifying the most effective investment locations for maximizing lifesaving efforts.

The devastation caused by the three 6.3 magnitude earthquakes in Afghanistan is due to the presence of centuries-old historic buildings and the continued use of old construction methods, such as clay bricks and unreinforced masonry. Engineers like the author focus on tangible decisions related to building construction, such as the amount and location of steel reinforcement. However, the devastation continues.

Replacing buildings is expensive, which is a daunting challenge for developing nations like Afghanistan, Morocco, and Syria, as well as developed nations like Turkey, Japan, and the United States. Despite this, thousands of engineers around the world are working and collaborating to make earthquakes less deadly.

The extent of damage done by an earthquake is determined by several factors, including magnitude, depth of the fault, and distance from the epicentre of the quake. An epicentre is the location on the Earth’s surface above the fault, where shaking is most intense, and buildings are more likely to collapse.

Multi-story buildings are more prone to collapse in earthquakes due to their lack of strength and stiffness. San Francisco, a densely populated Northern California city, began a mandatory retrofit program in 2013 to address this issue. Over 700 soft-story buildings have been retrofitted so far, with federal grants of up to $13,000 expected to accelerate progress.

Los Angeles followed suit in 2015, passing a law requiring retrofitting of both soft-story wood-framed and older concrete buildings prone to collapse. As of 2023, 69% of soft-story buildings in LA had been retrofitted. The cost of retrofitting a multi-unit apartment building in California costs between $60,000 and $130,000, while a typical single-family home in the U.S. starts as low as $3,000.

Communities outside the U.S. have also built better after earthquakes. In 2005, Kobe, Japan, experienced a major earthquake that resulted in over 5,000 fatalities and $200 billion in damage. Officials improved their building code using updated strengthening and stiffening techniques. In 2011, Christchurch, New Zealand, was devastated by two earthquakes that destroyed much of the downtown area. While many buildings didn’t collapse, many were damaged beyond repair, presenting an opportunity to focus on resilient construction.

However, it remains to be seen how people and governments can determine the best investments to decrease exposure to natural hazards. The centre I co-direct, which brings together specialists from 14 universities, aims to measure a community’s resilience to natural hazards to enable them to plan for, absorb, and recover rapidly from hazards.

A policy directive during the Obama administration led to funds being focused on improving resilience throughout the U.S. The centre has developed a computer model called IN-CORE, which allows communities to measure the short- and long-term effects of “what if” scenarios on their households, social institutions, physical infrastructure, and local economy.

The system allows stakeholders to make resilience-informed decisions and measure the impacts on vulnerable populations. One example of using IN-CORE is the engagement with Salt Lake County, Utah, which is planning for a major earthquake. The system will help Salt Lake County determine which building retrofits will provide the most return on investment based on physical services, social services, and economic and population stability.

The IN-CORE Project aims to assist communities identified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as Community Disaster Resilience Zones, which are areas in the U.S.The centre aims to provide socially equitable solutions to communities and regions worldwide most vulnerable to natural hazards and climate change.

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