Thursday, May 27, 2010

Engineering and earthquakes

As a kid, I was afraid of parking garages. Not that I had claustrophobia. I didn't. Not that I was scared of people who might be lurking in the shadows, waiting to take advantage of me. I wasn't. (Well, actually, I was. I was scared of a lot of things when I was a kid, but that still wasn't the primary reason for my fear.) The possibility that thousands of pounds of concrete could collapse on me was terrifying.

There was no real rational reason for this fear. Nobody I knew had ever been crushed in a parking garage. I had never seen footage on the news of a parking garage collapsing. I had never even heard about such a thing happening. But for some reason, the idea lodged in my head as a kid and tormented me every time I was in the car when my parents wound around the twisting ramps looking for a spot to park.

Tonight, I realized my childhood fear of a parkade collapsing on me wasn't exactly unfounded. I happened to turn on the TV and was greeted by an eerie, yet intriguing, documentary on the Discovery Channel. Pacific Northwest engineers - namely from the large west coast cities of Vancouver, BC, Seattle, WA, and Portland, OR and from several cities in California - traveled south to Chile to examine and investigate the destruction of buildings and bridges from the February earthquake. Some of their discoveries were quite astonishing and made me think twice about ever owning an condo in a mainly glass-front apartment building between 10 and 20 storeys tall. I was also convinced that living several hours inland is beneficial to surviving a megaquake (which, apparently, is expected at any time since they usually happen every 300-350 years and the Pacific Northwest is at about year 315 right now).

One part of the documentary really stood out to me. In this section, engineers talked about the two-mile section of I-5 that runs beside Seattle's waterfront. This portion is a double-decker road that was built before engineers and seismologists realized and understood how to build effectively in potential earthquake zones and is in dire need of repair. Some engineers even want to rebuild the entire section, using more quake-conscious methods. My old childhood fear returned as I stared at the screen. I travel on that portion of the interstate between two to four, and sometimes more, times a year to get to the SEA-TAC airport.

Hopefully, engineers and seismologists will be successful in reforming building standards in the Pacific Northwest before a similar-sized earthquake hits our coast. And hopefully they are able provide information to the public so we will have the knowledge to survive such a quake. If you want to read up on the documentary, Monster Quake provides more information.


  1. so before that you were planning on owning a condo in a 20 storey glass front building?

  2. No, of course not. But now I'm for sure planning NOT to own one. I think I'll work on my plan to own a cabin on a mountain lake first of all... That should be able to withstand the megaquake, right?