THE jolt was quick and mild at a little past 9:00 p.m. Wednesday. But as with the quick and mild jolts that we have had over the past years, this recent tremor never fails to elicit a quick and mild jolt in the heart. Come to think of it, last Wednesday was two days before the anniversary of the Big One in 1990. Coincidental, for sure, but uncanny, nevertheless.
I think that this is the legacy of July 16, 1990, for those of us who are old enough to remember. The memory of that fateful time is vivid enough to awaken deep-seated remembrances, especially when a jolt occurs just like the one that took place last Wednesday. And these jolts never really went away. This reminds us all the time that the earth is not terra firma or solid ground. The plates that collide underneath our feet, while it conveys the reality that the earth is a living, breathing entity, also implies the somber truth that the earth’s natural forces could result in a mass casualty event.
Yes, some of us can be shocked into reliving the sense of that fateful day, but not enough to perform the “duck, cover, and hold” protocols that we have been re-enacting in drills here and there. If anything, some of us remain glued to our devices after a jolt long enough to post “did you feel that?” on social media. Of the times that I have shared my thoughts about the Earthquake, what keeps coming back is how disparate the situation is, today, compared to the pronouncements of policy makers in the months after July 16, 1990.
I refer to what now appears to be a long-forgotten policy declaration expressed in the Earthquake’s immediate aftermath. The four-story cap on the height of buildings set as policy then might now be dead in the water, but at the very least it was a manifestation of a firm resolve from the city’s leadership to consider public safety over the goals of large-scale civil works – at that time.
The events that took place a few years after 1990 caused a shift in perspective from public safety to economic recovery. If the proposed cap in the height of buildings was set aside for economic reasons, the policy, intended for a good purpose as it were, was drawn on less than stable premises. Does the policy prevail over the building code? Or over settled engineering principles?
It is not clear to me what the answers to these questions are. What we do know is that over the years, we have seen construction activities in the city that have clearly exceeded four floors; and a few, I regret to say, were built at or near the sites of massive structural failures on July 16, 1990, that led to multiple casualties. In saying this, I do not intend to sow alarm but only wish to point to the irony of the fact that it is from the collapse of high-rise structures that yielded the most casualties over thirty years ago.
The irony is made even more apparent because of all the natural disasters that occur on the planet, earthquakes could not be predicted to this day, and this means no one can tell precisely when the next “big one” will occur. If this encourages developers to build taller structures then the slow march of geologic time, which is how the occurrence of earthquakes is measured, might be at the core of their decisions.
But then again, we learn about the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South, a 12-story condominium in Surfside, Florida where rescuers have recovered 95 bodies so far. Although the collapse was not caused by an earthquake, structural flaws have been eyed as the cause of the collapse. Others see ground subsidence as another possibility that had led to the slow deterioration of the building. The building is reported to have been built over forty years ago.
You can’t compare apples to oranges, that’s true. And there is no attempt to do a comparison here. Only to consider possibilities, and to ask why we seem to have forgotten the lessons of a catastrophic event. If structural developers can truly future-proof their buildings in consideration of earthquakes, the city, back in 1990, did make attempts to make the city more “resilient” in ways that encompass more than the possibility of earthquakes. A generation later, a pandemic confronts the city. One would think the lessons of 1990 should apply in the effort to recover from this present adversity. Hopefully we can still trace where the faults were and not repeat them all over again.