When a moderate earthquake struck southern Italy on 31 October 2002, the hill village of San Giuliano di Puglia lost one large building. Tragically, that building was the schoolhouse, and many of the town's schoolchildren were crushed to death in the rubble. The Italian authorities quickly began to investigate whether building codes had been met.
Seismic Science and Public Planning
Everyone deplores it when a structure unexpectedly failsoften human weakness, even criminality, is to blame, while other times it's simply nature's fault. Ensuring sound buildings is never simple, because science must intersect with the politics of local land use. Scientists are the newcomer in this age-old arena, and the traditional players may not pay science any respect until extraordinary events force them to. School safety gets everyone's attention, every time.
It has helped to learn that earthquakes are not random acts of God, but events that can be foreseen by careful study of the rocks and crust. And once foreseen, earthquakes can be prepared for in the building codes and the architect's office.
Schools and Seismology, a Long History
School safety has a long relationship with earthquake science. In California, quake-resistant construction once was strongly opposed by powerful institutions. It's hard to believe nowadays, but the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake took years to change building practices. Chambers of commerce, politicians, and the press all felt it best to rebuild and return to normal as quickly as possible. Each had a stake in downplaying the idea of California as earthquake country, needing expensive building codes.
When a large quake struck Santa Barbara in 1925, the same forces lined up against alarming the public: widespread awareness of earthquake risks would be "bad for business." Even the idea of asking the national government for relief was shot down, so reluctant were these "movers and shakers" to admit the existence of a disaster.
This state of affairs changed when the Long Beach earthquake of 10 March 1933 shook down 15 school buildings in Long Beach and 41 schools in Los Angeles were forced to close. The public realized that it was pure luck the quake occurred at 5:54 p.m.; had it struck during school hours, children would have been injured and killed by the thousands.
Science Saves the Children
This time the scientists were ready, informing the public of the need for better building codes through newspaper stories and commissions of inquiry. Under the resulting public pressure, the state passed the Field Act within a month, ensuring that school buildings across the state would pass new guidelines enforced by state inspectors. By the end of May the Riley Act was passed, making earthquake safety a legal requirement for all buildings.
Ever since that time, scientists and engineers have taken the lead in setting the standards for California buildings. The example has spread to the rest of the United States and elsewhere in the world, and the wisdom of that arrangement has become plainer with every damaging earthquake. All it took was people seeing the obvious.
PS: I've sung the praises of earthquake engineers before. They're important because earthquakes don't kill peoplefalling buildings do. EERI, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, is on the front line of learning from quakes while the damage is fresh. EERI "strike teams" of seismologists and engineers visit the affected area and produce reconnaissance reports in a matter of weeks.