In quake preparedness, Japan called 'remarkable'

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Kent Harries, University of Pittsburgh associate professor of structural engineering and mechanics, knew there would be death and destruction when he learned that an 8.9-magnitude earthquake -- the fifth most powerful earthquake ever measured -- had struck offshore Japan Friday and unleashed a devastating tsunami.

And he also knew that the death and damage toll would be less because it was Japan.

"In terms of earthquake preparedness and recovery, the Japanese are remarkable. Japan has seen huge damage in the past," he said, referring to the Kobe earthquake on Jan. 16, 1995, that killed 5,502 people and the Great Tokyo Earthquake on Sept. 1, 1923, that killed 142,800.

"Their building codes are truly state of the art. Haiti was a much smaller earthquake but you're talking about two ends of the spectrum" on building construction.

Japan requires buildings to be constructed to withstand an earthquake, with tall buildings able to sway and short structures designed to ride out the event by not swaying, he said.

Mr. Harries spent time in Tokyo working on seismic issues and visited a museum solely for engineers in which large pieces of destruction from the Kobe earthquake are kept for analysis.

"With every earthquake, with every devastating event, they learn from it and react. It's not something we see here, unfortunately. It is something more prevalent in their minds."

While the earthquake was powerful, it was the monstrous tsunami that appeared to cause most of the death and destruction, Mr. Harries noted.

It is trickier -- and more costly -- to construct buildings that can withstand both an earthquake and a tsunami, but Japan does that, too, he said. Still, there's nothing that can be done when millions of gallons of water ferociously burst upon the shore, sweeping away people and property.

The earthquake had the power of 336 megatons of TNT, noted Bill Harbert, a Pitt geophysics professor. Or, to put it another way, he said, it unleashed 6.7 times the energy of the 50-megaton nuclear device the Russians exploded in 1961, the largest nuclear detonation in history.

A more recent comparison -- it was 707 times the energy as the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010.

"It was unbelievable," said Mr. Harbert, who heads Pitt's Department of Geology and Planetary Science seismic station at the Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park, North Side.

From his home, he remotely monitored the seismograph readings that reached here only 12 minutes after they began.

"It's something on the one hand like a volcanic eruption, an incredible display of what the earth does, what our restless earth is and how it works. At the same time, I am always thinking of the human impact."

An earthquake of between an 8.0 and 8.9 magnitude is known as "great" and can cause severe damage several hundred miles across, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Its frequency is once a year. Last year, on Feb. 27, an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck offshore Chile. Until Friday, that was the fifth largest earthquake ever.

The four largest earthquakes are in the 9.0-magnitude or greater range -- also known as a "great" earthquake but one that can cause devastation in areas several thousand miles across. The frequency for earthquakes in this category is once every 20 years.

The largest ever was a 9.5-magnitude earthquake in Chile in 1960.


Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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