A Silent and Invisible Savior

Monday, March 26, 2012

Granted, I'm barely able to follow news these days with a baby in the house, but I bet I'm hardly the only one who will be surprised to learn that, nearly a week ago, Mexico City experienced a magnitude 7.4 earthquake, its worst since 1985. (For comparison, the infamous quake that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2010 was a 7.0.)

Why wasn't this news, despite the fact that much of Mexico City is built on landfill, and is, as such, much more vulnerable to earthquakes than many other places? An article in Nature explains that improved engineering resulted in "little structural damage and no deaths":

No one really understood how the loose landfill would react to major earthquakes until 1985, when a magnitude-8 quake struck the coast along the same plate boundary as Tuesday's quake. The effects were horrific, crushing hospitals, hotels and apartment buildings. Tower blocks between eight and eighteen stories high were hit especially hard. Mexico City fast became one of the best-studied earthquake zones in the world and scientists now know that buildings of these heights reacted to the particular frequency generated by the shake-amplifying landfill.

After the quake, the country changed its building regulations and pushed for better design and materials. Cement buildings, for example stood up less well than brick, so the government tightened up on which cements could be used. Buildings were buttressed with giant steel lattices and special attention was given to those in the crucial 8–20-storey range.

"Mexico City in 1985 was a wake-up call for the engineering profession," says Alcocer. "Engineering has improved."

Today, many seismologists see Mexico City as a model for the developing world as an earthquake-conscious city within a moderate budget. But until Tuesday, the city had yet to be tested. Although measurements at UNAM suggest that this quake was only a third as strong as the one in 1985, Alcocer says it will generate massive amounts of valuable data. [American Seismologist David] Wald, however, sees it as a warning for any city located in a silty basin -- few of which have the kind of data that Mexico City has gathered.
The lack of gory consequences does not, alone, explain why the story of a great achievement did not at least merit some news coverage. The full explanation is cultural, and pertains to what is regarded as newsworthy.

It is a commonplace in modern culture that the word "reality" is often used with negative connotations. If someone has a generally positive outlook, he will sooner or later hear that he needs a "dose of reality". If one upholds principles of any kind, this view holds, it's basically because one just hasn't been exposed to "reality" yet. Admiration of someone as a hero is "unrealistic" unless qualified (to put it very mildly) or even prefaced by words (true or not) to the effect that the hero has feet of clay -- and a prolonged elaboration of same.

The fact that a story like this is apparently of only limited interest -- to academic scientists, judging from the source -- is an indication that this view, obviously missing its own dose of reality, is too widespread. And that's too bad: Even devoid of the vividness that comes with "human interest" reporting, I found something in this story too often missing in the products of modern culture: inspiration and encouragement.

-- CAV

P.S. A quick search of Google News reveals some press coverage, but the engineering is given somewhat perfunctory treatment, as in this Houston Chronicle story, dated March 23. I find the title almost amusing: "7.4 Quake Apparently Spares Lives in Mexico". I had no idea quakes could be so compassionate.


Today: Added P.S.
3-27-12: Corrected a typo.


Anonymous said...

To quote Inspector at the New Clarion on a different topic: "That's like giving Goliath credit for David's victory on account of his inordinately soft head..."

Talk about inverting causes.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...

Heh! And you could say that of giving credit to the government, which both articles do, as if people wanting housing or a place to do business can't learn from things like this and act accordingly.

Kathy said...

The coverage here in Mexico has been extensive, naturally. In fact, stories about it keep coming up.

To be frank, though, I've paid little attention to them. I felt the quake (at a solid bedrock area), and I've seen the city since then. I don't need to be told damage was slight.

Gus Van Horn said...

"I don't need to be told damage was slight."

You're missing my point.