Temblor experts fault Japan's response

January 20, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

OSAKA, Japan -- Eighty Japanese and American earthquake engineers, who happened to be meeting here when the Kobe earthquake struck just 20 miles to the west, sharply criticized Japan's lack of preparedness, poor emergency coordination and even the failure of news media to advise people on what to do in the wake of the temblor.

The experts toured the most devastated parts of Kobe yesterday and then gave a series of working-group reports showing shock at what they had seen.

"We are seeing here the breakdown of the city function," said San Francisco structural engineer Charles Scawthorne. "We did not see that in Northridge, Loma Prieta or even Mexico City in 1985."

He said the working groups had seen thousands of people on the streets with little assistance, not knowing what to do, and with insufficient water, food and sanitary facilities. "Here we have such a breakdown. Lifelines are broken."

Joanne M. Nigg, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, said her group had found a woeful lack of any attempt by authorities or rescue personnel to control residents' movement in high-danger areas.

"People were allowed to return to teetering structures without any warning of the dangers in doing so, and additional casualties resulted," she said. "There was neither any functional transportation nor any traffic control.

"Kobe was not ready," Ms. Nigg added. "There had been little education on what to do in an earthquake in advance, since none was expected, and after the quake occurred the news media, local television radio and newspapers put too much emphasis on the casualties and gave little practical advice on what people should do."

The groups reported that while older wood dwellings fared worst in the earthquake, collapsing or tipping over by the thousands, even modern dwellings built to the latest code standards collapsed in the worst-shaken areas in the heart of Kobe.

Damage to steel-frame buildings, such as was found in Los Angeles' Jan. 17, 1994, earthquake, was even worse in the Kobe quake, the experts said, with many noticeably tilting to one side. While these did not collapse, such buildings can no longer be occupied. Steel-reinforced bridge supports also crumbled, they said.

The meeting here was held under the auspices of the California-led Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, and participants yesterday called on the world's scientific community undertake six months of urgent studies on urban-centered earthquakes.

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