I am the daughter of a structural engineer. Before my father retired, he specialized in designing high-rise structures in earthquake prone California. As a young girl, the nightmares that woke me up were of earthquakes, failing bridges, and falling buildings. It was the fear of a young girl that did not want her father to be wrong. It was the eternal dilemma of man versus nature. How could he be sure the building would withstand the earthquakes, how could he earthquake proof a building, how could he predict forces of nature? And what would happen if he were wrong?
The tragedies in Japan are a nightmare beyond words: a record-breaking earthquake, a tsunami, nuclear explosions, and partial meltdowns.
A recent NYTimes article “Japanese Strict Building Code Saved Lives” brings to our attention that both legislated design and civic preparedness prevented further damage and saved lives. Japan has one of the strictest building codes in the world, and therefore has some of the most advanced methods for earthquake proofing and tsunami proofing buildings. The Japanese make design decisions that include using shock absorbers at the base of buildings and planning flexible structures that sway. In addition, their systems-based approach to preparedness included seawalls, earthquake alarms, rehearsed tsunami evacuation drills, regular building inspections, and a population educated on evacuation.
The NYTimes article further demonstrates how Japan was the nation most able to withstand the “twin tragedy of earthquake and tsunami.” Unfortunately, this article was written before the latest dangers – numerous partial nuclear meltdowns, potentially full meltdowns, explosions, and potential radiation contamination – came to light.
Now the world is waiting to see if engineers can control the cooling of the third reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. We as designers, and more importantly as human beings, have to confront the reality that it might be man-made design, not nature, that will prove to be the cause of the worst, most uncontrollable, and devastating tragedy of all.