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Kobe Lesson: More U.S.-Japan Cooperation : Work together to survive a seismically uncertain future

The horrific scenes from the Japanese city of Kobe surely must strike fear throughout earthquake-vulnerable California: thousands dead or missing, more than 8,000 buildings flattened or damaged, elevated freeways knocked over like children’s toys. How could this happen in modern Japan, with its quake drills, strong building codes and rigorous inspections?

However, closer examination suggests many important differences between Kobe and urban California. A temblor of similar magnitude--with about twice the energy of the 1994 Northridge quake--would certainly cause much damage but probably would have rather different effects here. Panic is not among the abundant lessons expected from Kobe.

The news of Tuesday’s 7.2 temblor hit all the harder, coming as it did on the first anniversary of the Northridge quake, which was the costliest disaster in U.S. history. Marking the date at the partially rebuilt campus of Cal State Northridge, President Clinton on Tuesday said he is sending a high-level team of emergency experts to Japan to see whether the recovery lessons learned in Northridge could help the Japanese. Our hearts go out to the Kobe victims, for every Angeleno is a kindred spirit in this disaster.

One casualty of the Kobe event is Japanese overconfidence about their quake engineering standards and preparedness. Modern Japanese building codes are perhaps the strongest in the world, and quality control is good. It is not yet clear how many modern structures suffered heavy damage.

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Civil engineering experts at Caltech in Pasadena said that much of the Kobe loss appeared to have come from the collapse of single-family homes. Unlike those in California, Kobe homes are very old, covered with heavy roof tiles and usually made of wood, without the lateral braces and dry-wall construction that give modern American homes a measure of stability.

The fires sweeping Kobe are another major difference. Japanese homes are very closely spaced, and for heating and cooking they depend heavily on natural gas systems that have pilot flames. As a result of these open flames, conflagrations quickly erupted.

Seismic retrofitting of older buildings has been slow in Japan, for both economic and cultural reasons. Moreover, the Kobe area had not had a significant quake for almost 100 years and was considered, by many if not all experts, to be less vulnerable than Tokyo, 270 miles to the east.

Though there are many significant differences in geology, economics and culture between Japan and Southern California, the Kobe quake gives added salience to last week’s scientific report from Caltech and the U.S. Geological Survey that a quake under a major city could generate vertical ground movements that could topple major buildings. Clearly the design of new structures will have to be re-evaluated, and retrofitting of even relatively modern ones will have to be considered. Tuesday’s quake will offer perhaps the best verdict yet on whether the Japanese approach of building with great strength to prevent damage is better than the American view that structures that flex under stress are superior.

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The Kobe event, whose epicenter was only 20 miles from the urban center, offers a living laboratory to study such movements--to determine, for example, whether steel or concrete construction is better. It is time for U.S. and Japanese experts to put aside any obstacles, intentional or not, and to cooperate more in the common interest of surviving a seismically uncertain future.


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