The Vulnerable City

Were an earthquake of 7.5 on the moment magnitude scale (Mw) to hit Bucharest at night, it would do so while more than 450,000 people were sleeping in buildings with a medium to high risk of sustaining serious damage or totally collapsing. At least 6500 people would die instantly, and more than 16,000 would be injured. The death toll would continue to grow over the following days and weeks. Were the earthquake to hit during the day, the numbers of those killed and injured would in all likeliness be halved. For reference, a 7.5 Mw earthquake would be slightly larger than that of 1977, in which 1500 died, but smaller than the massive 7.7 Mw earthquake of 1940 (in which it is thought around 1000 people were killed: there is no official figure).

These are not wild guesses, but official estimates based on a simulation from INCERC: Romania’s National Institute for Research and Development in Construction and Urbanisation. The estimates date from 2003: newer figures might possibly predict even greater loss of life. Alas, despite INCERC being a publicly-funded body, it keeps its research close to its chest, available only to paying customers. It would apparently cost ‘somewhere in the region of €1000’ to find out how many people INCERC currently believe will die in Bucharest’s next earthquake.

We therefore owe many thanks to Jo Ilie of Decat o Revista (DoR) for at least making public INCERC’s 2003 data, garnished from one of its researchers, Emil Sever Georgescu. Ilie spoke to him while undertaking months of research for Orasul Vulnerabil (The Vulnerable City), almost certainly one of the best pieces of Romanian journalism we will read this year. You will find it in the current Summer 2017 issue of DoR (which you can buy here). Or read it online here.

(A few years ago we contributed a couple of pieces to DoR ourselves. They have not published a word of ours since, which is probably why the magazine has gone from strength to strength).

What else do we find out from Orasul Vulnerabil? Well, fewer than eight per cent of the city’s buildings would be unaffected. Again, this is not sensationalist speculation. These are official estimates. Just 345 buildings in Bucharest currently display the infamous ‘red disc’ which denotes a construction expected to completely collapse during an earthquake. Of these, 175 have been designated a public danger and only 90 have been consolidated. However, no risk assessment has been carried out for years, and the current number of buildings which should be carrying a red disc is almost certainly far higher: 1600 is considered a fair estimate. Romania only enacted its first (timid) earthquake-prevention legislation for the construction industry in 1963. Anything built before that should be considered medium to high risk. Radu Vacareanu, a professor at Bucharest’s University of Technology and Construction places particular emphasis on avoiding the many 1920s and 1930s apartment blocks on Bulevarduls Magheru, Balcescu and Dacia. ‘Not even to visit somebody’ would Vacareanu enter one of them.

So at risk is just about the whole of Bulevardul Magheru that Ioana Nenici, an urbanist specialised in planning recommends walking ‘only on the side of the road where the pavement is widest’. We learn that Nenici lives in Tineretului, an area (along with IMGB-Berceni) considered to be at less risk than others.

Bucharest is – you will not be surprised to hear – utterly unprepared for such a large scale catastrophe. That goes for the public at large as well as the authorities.

For a start there are the myths and legends which persist amongst large sections of Bucharest’s population, such as the idea that if a building survived 1940 and 1977 then it is now safe, as if each successive earthquake only makes it more resistant. Nothing more false. Likewise, many people are convinced that their blocks were consolidated after the 1977 earthquake. Wrong: they were repaired, often badly, and in a great hurry. There is a huge difference.

Even when the authorities do try to help they can be met with indifference and outright hostility. ‘Why do you want to consolidate the block now? Do you know something?’ No, nobody does: it is impossible to predict earthquakes, despite what many a charlatan regularly says on Romania’s more sensationalist television channels. Ilie also puts the rather difficult question: Is it even right for privately-owned buildings to be consolidated with public funds? The drift of her piece suggests that money is better spent on ensuring that the city will be able to cope when the earthquake hits.

High-rise apartment blocks in London and all over the UK (except Scotland, which made its high-rise buildings fire-proof years ago) are currently being evaluated following the Grenfell Tower fire of two weeks ago. The housing in question is almost entirely social, owned by local authorities. In Romania, social housing is almost non-existent. Where would people live post-quake? As much as 42 per cent of the city’s housing stock could be unusable.

So far there has been little done to prepare either Bucharest’s buildings or its citizens for a major earthquake. Schools and office buildings occasionally carry out earthquake drills, but these are little more than box-ticking exercises. Bucharest is seriously short of even vaguely competent first-aiders, who would be crucial on the day or night of a big quake.

An earthquake will, one day, hit the city. You could do worse than begin preparing for it by reading Orasul Vulnerabil (which we hope DoR will make available in English soon). It even comes with a list of things to pack in an earthquake rucksack.

You do have one ready, don’t you?

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