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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Natural Disasters

Aired January 2, 2000 - 1:09 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JONATHAN MANN, CNN ANCHOR: In the century just passed, we've seen no shortage of natural disasters, from South Florida's Hurricane Andrew to last month's devastating floods and mudslides in Venezuela.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Science has come a long way in the effort to predict, if not ward off, Earth's forces of nature. Still elusive though is the danger from within.

Here's CNN's Mark Armstrong.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARK ARMSTRONG, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hurricanes, tornados and floods; all natural disasters that can devastate nations. But meteorology has made astounding advances over the century, often giving governments the few hours, sometimes even days, they need to evacuate areas that could be affected.

Earthquakes, though, are a different beast. Scientists still can't accurately predict when or where the next one will strike. Take 1999. In terms of how many and how strong they were, it was an average year for quakes. But the human toll is astounding. Turkey: A 7.4 magnitude quake in August kills 18,000 people, flattens buildings in seconds, 200,000 people homeless. No warning, no chance of escape. Taiwan: 2,400 people killed in September, when a 7.3 magnitude quake devastated the island. Columbia, January: hundreds dead, more than a thousand homeless.

Trying to prevent this kind of devastation, geologists are taking a two-pronged approach. The first, improving technology used to predict quakes. But the second and perhaps more realistic mission is preparing, or quake-proofing, cities. Teams of geologists from the U.S. Geological Survey go to quake sites and examine everything from roads, bridges, spans and communication lines to buildings and residences. Geologists work with governments, engineers, architects and construction experts to learn more about how and why these seismological events damage the infrastructure of cities and what can be done to prevent it.

TOM HANKS, U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY: The most important lesson that has been learned many, many times now is that a poor construction fares poorly during even modest earthquakes or large earthquakes at close distances. ARMSTRONG: The biggest fear among geologists in the U.S. is that another powerful earthquake will hit a densely populated region like California. And while they expect there will be fatalities. infrastructure damage and huge economic losses, they want to make sure everything possible is done before a quake hits to ensure buildings won't collapse, roads won't cave in and houses will remain intact.

The USGS says years of that type of planning was put to the test during 1994's Northridge quake in Los Angeles and the 1989 San Francisco quake. After those quakes, geologists examined buildings and roads that had been designed, or retrofitted, to withstand earthquakes and try to determine why some were reduced to rubble while others escaped unscathed.

HANKS: The construction involves the design of it, it involves building codes, and then it involves the actual construction of the building and paying attention to all the engineering details, making sure that the steel is the right steel that has been required of the design and the right concrete is used.

ARMSTRONG: Public awareness of what to do when a quake hits, coupled with stringent building standards and intensive training for emergency rescue teams helped kept the death toll down in both the Northridge and San Francisco quakes, even though they happened in major urban areas with millions of resident.

HANKS: With the growth of population and the growth of the civilization, more and more vulnerable areas are being built into and upon.

ARMSTRONG: Experts say by sharing and exchanging information between geologists, architects and governments around the world and learning from each new quake, they'll continue to advance new ideas and plan more thoroughly for further quakes. They say planning like this is the key to survival should the so-called big one hit.

But certain practicalities quickly enter the picture: Preparing for earthquakes is expensive, very expensive, and many countries can't afford the investment, and that makes new technologies and retrofitting buildings out of reach for those who may need it most.

Mark Armstrong, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: Despite the daunting task of finding ways to countermand the force of nature, Japan is taking it on.

ALLEN: The truth of the Earth's power is especially clear there.

As CNN's Marina Kamimura reports, Japan hopes to learn from the past to build for the future.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARINA KAMIMURA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kobe learned the hard way the price of not being prepared for a major earthquake. When a 7.2 magnitude quake struck the port city just before dawn January 17, 1995, within seconds, more than a quarter-million buildings were badly damaged or left in ruins. Fires spread across the city, even as roadways deemed unpassable by fallen debris prevented rescuers from reaching victims.

Months later, some were living without running water or gas. Five years later, some residents still living in temporary shelters. All this in a nation so obsessed about earthquake safety that it holds nationwide drills every year. So what went wrong? And what can of lesson can Kobe and the rest of the world draw from this.

(on camera): Perhaps no other structure better illustrates Kobe's vulnerability that day than the Hunchin (ph) Expressway, one of the highways that cuts through the heart of the city. Despite its massive concrete pillars, long stretches of the elevated highway were virtually destroyed, all in a matter of seconds.

(voice-over): Engineers had built its columns to be twice as strong as those in California, another of the world's seismic hotspots. The only problem was, while the enormous pillars were strong, they were no match for the inevitable twisty and turning motions that comes with a large tremor. But as this engineer explains, the fix was fairly simple.

STEPHEN ADER, EQE INTERNATIONAL: To alleviate that, these have all been retrofitted by wrapping the columns of steel, so now that during lateral earthquake motion, they have ductility; they can stress and strain without having the phenomenal collapses.

KAMIMURA: Steel ties have also been added to keep adjacent spans from coming apart. Finally, the concrete at the top of the pillars that the road actually rests upon was also extended, so that even if the quake causes a roadway to slide, it won't fall off its perch.

Most of that was common knowledge in the engineering world, as far back as 1989. That, after San Francisco's Loma Creata (ph) quake shattered Californians faith in their sprawling freeway system, and again, after Los Angeles, exactly one year to the day before the great Hunchin quake struck Kobe.

But planers in around Kobe chose to ignore those warnings. The Japanese are no stringers to quakes. The great Kanto quake of 1923 killed 140,000 and destroyed much of Tokyo. But many believed the risk in this particular area was extremely low.

"People in Tokyo are used to quakes," says this man, "because they happen all the time there. But for us, we're not used to them at all."

So while other bridges and highways were being reinforced elsewhere Japan, Kobe's were not. Buildings were no exception. Older wood-framed houses collapsed by the thousands, crushed by the weight of their heavy tile roofs and relatively weak first stories.

But despite the colossal destruction, experts say where Japan's quake-resistant technologies were used they largely worked. Prefabricated houses and other buildings put up after 1981 did particularly well. 1981 is when construction codes were greatly tightened, making it possible for buildings to survive much larger quakes than ever before.

ADER: There is a steel bar that runs straight through from this point in the column to that point in the beam.

KAMIMURA: Today's leading-edge technology here revolves around dampers, devices that were originally developed in the United States, but popularized in Japan after Kobe. Their named for their ability to dampen a quake's impact, much like a shock absorber does in a car.

In this case, the damper is a metal rod embedded in concrete and steel casing.

ADER: During the earthquake, the pushing and pulling of that bar actually absorbs the energy.

KAMIMURA: It, in effect, takes the shock of the quake instead of the beams and columns it's attached to.

ADER: The dampers will absorb the damage, and the main building frame will remain undamaged. So after the earthquake, instead of having to reweld the joints and restraighten the frame, all we have to do unbolt this device and replace it with a new device.

KAMIMURA: Like dampers, base isolators also bear the brunt of a tremor, therefore keeping a structure from shaking as severely as many did during the Kobe quake.

These isolators are installed in the basement of the building. When a quake strikes, layers of rubber and steel inside the isolator move back and forth in response to the ground movement below. But the violent motion is confined to the isolator, meaning the building above only rocks very gently. But as with most cutting-edge technology, the bottleneck is cost. Even in Japan, Kobe's lessons are being pushed aside as a country's recession takes its toll on public and private budgets.

In some cases, the need to save money has made retrofitting a popular alternative. Often modifications can be made without imposing costly disruptions to a company's business.

JUMIO YAMAYA, TOKYO DISTRICT OFFICIAL (through translator): We chose retrofitting since it allows us to restrengthen our building without forcing us to move somewhere else while it's being done.

KAMIMURA: For it's part, the government is trying to encourage structural improvements in post-Kobe Japan with what's known as the Anti-Seismic Remodeling Law. It's non-binding, but offers low- interest loans and tax breaks to those who install quake-resistant technology in their homes or offices.

Five years later, many sections of Kobe look brand new; others, like pieces of a giant construction site. But for Japan, Kobe's hardest lesson did not come from the world of technology. Instead, what was made painfully obvious in neighborhood's such as Kobe's Nadata (ph) Ward was the government's inability to deal with a large scaled crisis.

(on camera): This is Nadata Ward today. The residential and shopping area that was completely devastated by the quake and the raging fires that followed it. Here, even five years later the task of rebuilding goes on.

(voice-over): Even the government admits the reason the overall damage in places like this was so horrendous was not just the earthquake's doing, but rather Tokyo's bungling of the rescue and relief operations that followed.

KATSUMA SEKI, CABINET OFFICE FOR CRISIS MANAGEMENT (through translator): We had made extensive preparations for a disaster, but we were not ready to apply them.

KAMIMURA: Japan has since created a crisis management office, headquartered in the prime minister's residence. There, information from all government departments is fed in and monitored, so that Tokyo can now direct a national rescue and relief effort when the need arises. On the ground, there have been similar changes. Kobe city officials charged with running disaster relief programs now have to live within walking distance of city hall.

Back in 1995, firefighters were frustrated with their limited rescue abilities. They now have invested in equipment that's better suited for jobs such as searching through rubble. Take the swat cam, equipped with a tiny video camera. It's easily portable and can be used to probe into spaces normally out of reach to human eyes. Diamond edged saws are another addition, valued for their ability to cut through concrete at any angle. And even if you can't afford state of the art equipment, officials here urge rescuers in other countries to think hard about compatibility issues.

In Kobe, valuable time was lost over something as basic as fire hoses. For example, Kobe's hoses are connected with couplers; Tokyo uses a screw-on version. As a crowded city is slowly rebuilt, urban planners have their hands filled trying to make it less congested.

KAZUO IGAWA, KOBE CITIZEN'S BUREA (through translator): We are constructing the city in a very different way, suitable for protecting ourselves from natural disasters.

KAMIMURA: They are using more land as parks to serve both as a fire break and evacuation area. Roads are being widened to ensure emergency vehicles can get through even if buildings are badly damaged. The city is also storing supplies such as blankets and food in warehouses and 350 schools across the city. More emergency shut- off valves are also being installed in water mains to try and prevent quake damage in one area from threatening the entire system.

But rescue and government officials say all the hardware in the world does little good if the public isn't properly prepared as well. They are working with community groups to train as many people as possible in skills as basic as how to use a fire extinguisher.

TOSHIO SETO, KOBE FIRE DEPT. (through translator): If all the right people have equipment and some know how, they can make a big difference in crises like this.

KAMIMURA: Some residences don't need prompting.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We now where sweatshirts when we sleep at night so we can easily escape if there is another quake. You never know when we will have another one.

KAMIMURA: Kumino Olgashi (ph) says she has learned her lessons. She keeps emergency supplies close at hand and has even reactivated a well in her home, remembering how long it took before water service was restored in the city. But as time passes, the memories of those painful and tragic days begin to fade.

"It just seems something like that can't happen for another hundred years or so," she says.

While earthquake specialists agree moving on is part of the healing process, their greatest fear is that as memories begin to fade, Kobe's lessons, too, will also be forgotten.

Marina Kamimura, CNN, Kobe, Japan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: Well, earthquakes were with us in previous millenniums and will be in the third, but are scientists at last getting a handle on how to survive them?

MANN: When we come back, we'll put that question and others to an expert in the field. Ed Friedrichs joins us next, after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: The first snowfall of the season has added misery to the lives of thousands of quake victims now living in flimsy tents in Turkey. 1999 was an especially trying year for that country hit hard by two strong quakes that killed more than 18,000 people

ALLEN: They deserve a break right now -- those folks who have just been hit by the snow -- but can 21st century technology help curve the staggering loss of lives incurred by quakes and other natural disasters, especially in regions trying to strengthen their infrastructure?

MANN: Joining us now from Los Angeles is Edward Friedrichs, president of Gensler Architecture Design and Planning Worldwide. Thanks so much for being with us. The power of earthquakes -- just to look at some of the pictures we just saw -- is stunning. But let me ask you this, can people outsmart, outspend, out prepare earthquakes and conquer them, do you think? EDWARD FRIEDRICHS, GENSLER ARCHITECTURE: Earthquake technology today and the design codes that we have are very, very well suited to resisting earthquake damage. Our problem today is simply retrofit and compliance.

MANN: Well, to hear one of the reports the way it put it, another problem is predicting them. Why hasn't there been more success?

FRIEDRICHS: Earthquakes simply aren't predictable to any degree of accuracy today. We're certainly not having more earthquakes than we've ever had in the past. We just have more populated zones of the planet today. So predicting earthquakes, I think, is going to be a challenge for many, many years.

MANN: OK. So you were talking about precautions, that's where the conversation begins and ends, I guess, but let me ask you, can ordinary people take precautions or do they have to hope that their builder, their building inspector, their architect took those precautions for them?

FRIEDRICHS: I think the society today is very dependent on professionals, architects, contractors, and certainly building officials for assuring compliance with codes. Modern earthquake codes really began after the Sylmar quake in southern California in 1971, so there is a fairly limited history to the use of contemporary earthquake codes. Each new earthquake code, we learn something new.

ALLEN: And you talked about the money involved, and we saw on that report that so many don't spend the money to bring their buildings into compliance. What are we talking about if you wanted to retrofit, say, a typical office complex?

FRIEDRICHS: Well, it -- very substantially with the way that construction is -- was done in the first place, but certainly the costs are not prohibitive in terms of bringing buildings into seismic compliance today. Throughout California, most of the buildings that were built prior to 1971 or even prior to contemporary codes have been upgraded, so we have a pretty consistent compliance. Southern California, northern California after the earthquakes in '89 and '93, '94, have been by in large retrofitted, so we are in pretty good shape.

ALLEN: What are the hot spots that concern you as we head into a new year?

FRIEDRICHS: The hot spots are any active seismic zone that's in a country that has not had the kind of enforcement that the U.S. and currently in Japan has taken place. Certainly, China is a deep concern, because compliance with contemporary codes has by and large been only a recent phenomenon.

There are tremendous building stock and very large population areas that are still subject to severe damage.

MANN: Can I ask you about population areas? Are people just living in the wrong places? Are there some places on Earth that you can think of where there really shouldn't be cities, where there shouldn't be people?

FRIEDRICHS: No, I think while there are certainly very active seismic areas, particularly volcanic regions such as Japan and Hawaii, but fundamentally people have populated the planet where it's physically attractive. Often, that's because there were seismic or other geological occurrences that made the landscape so beautiful.

Now, I don't think we can restrict -- nor could we, at this point -- restrict population, simply because people have already established themselves.

MANN: That's a fascinating point you just made. I want to make sure I understand it properly. Oddly, the most dangerous places are the most beautiful?

FRIEDRICHS: Often they are, interestingly enough. Hawaii is clearly a seismic region because of the volcanic activity that takes place below it.

Many of our mountain ranges occurred because of the shift of seismic plates, creating rather dramatic landscape features.

MANN: You have said that outside the United States there are places that are not prepared. Are there places in the United States? Everyone is expecting, of course, more trouble in California, and people there are very careful in the way they build. Are there places in the U.S. that aren't as careful as they should be?

FRIEDRICHS: Well, there are areas of the United States that are deemed not to be seismic zones, so we are clearly very, very cautious in areas like California, Utah, and other places that have a long history of seismic activity. But one of the most devastating quakes that ever took place in the United States was in St. Louis in the 19th century. That -- the seismic shock was felt as far away as Manhattan. So clearly there are areas where there has been limited or no seismic activity in recent or recorded history that still could be subject to the shifting of tectonic plates.

MANN: Fascinating stuff and important to keep in mind. Ed Friedrichs of Gensler Architecture, thanks so much.

ALLEN: Happy New Year.

FRIEDRICHS: Happy New Year.

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