Lessons of Kobe

Last week's horrifying tremor -- 7.2 on the seismic scale -- was a jolt felt around the world. What California can learn about disaster planning and relief efforts fromt he devastation in Japan; IT'S NOT AS IF THE QUAKE WAS unexpected, or Japan unprepared. Quite the reverse. The island nation is earthquake-obsessed. Every Sept. 1, on the anniversary of the great 1923 Tokyo quake that killed more than 140,000 people, school children practice earthquake drills, dashing through smoke-filled tunnels with wet handkerchiefs over their faces, and soldiers rehearse helicopter rescues. Seismic monitors crisscross the country so that whenever a tremor registers, an electronic signal automatically shuts down the famed bullet train to keep it from derailing at 160 miles an hour. Japanese building codes are as strict as any in the world, and as a result "the Japanese have always walked around with this attitude that "[Severe earthquake damage] could never happen to us'," said an American seismologist attending -- in a gruesome coincidence -- an earthquake conference in Osaka last week. After the Northridge, Calif, quake a year ago, Japan's Construction Ministry even boasted that U.S. freeway, designs were "different" (read: inferior). ,"Ours," he insisted, "are safe."

Twenty seconds of terror shattered that complacency with the force of more than 240 kilotons of TNT. Suddenly, decades of assumptions -- about which seismic zones are dangerous, about "earthquake resistance" and about the adequacy of relief plans -- collapsed like the stucco-and-tile-roofed homes in Kobe's hard-hit Nagato ward. A shallow fault line just beyond the modern port city's harbor snapped. and an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the seismic scale left the once picturesque city in smoldering ruins. Cars hung from elevated highways. Railway lines dangled in midair and roads twisted like asphalt Christmas ribbon. Fivestory buildings fell on their sides like dollhouses knocked down by a child's tantrum. A seven-story bank building leaned out over the sidewalk as in a freeze frame; a section of the Sannomiya Hotel had cracked in half. Osaka, 27 miles from the quake's epicenter. sustained minor damage -- broken windows, cracked walls -- and 11 deaths. But in the City of the Dead that Kobe was now, the toll stood at nearly 5,000 fatalities more than those who died in the infamous 1906 San Francisco quake -- with some 200 people still missing and an additional 26,000 injured. At last count, more than 50,000 buildings had been destroyed, thousands more were so severely damaged that they will have to be razed, and much of the transportation system was reduced to rubble. Damage estimates started at $30 billion.

If Americans knew Kobe at all, it was from its renowned beef. Now the port city, nestled between the Rokko mountains and Osaka Bay, will have a different notoriety: it entered the seismic-record books last week as the first urban area since World War II to sustain a direct hit from an earthquake more powerful than 7 on the Richter scale. In neither of California's recent temblors -- Loma Prieta in 1989 and Northridge last year -- did the most powerful seismic waves rocket under the most populous neighborhoods, Kobe showed in fiery color what could happen -- indeed, what will happen -- when they do. "The most valuable lesson of Kobe is that Japan was not earthquakeproof," said Prof. Katsuki Takiguchi of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. "We always believed Japan was ahead of everybody else. It turned out we were not."

Officially, 310,000 people were homeless, but thousands more could not go back into their damaged homes because of the near-constant aftershocks. Many struggled to keep warm against the 36-degree-Fahrenheit cold by huddling around sidewalk bonfires, fueled with pieces of their homes and furniture. Thousands of weary refugees, some limping and in bandages, jammed the main road out of Kobe for days. Struggling to wheel a suitcase while his wife pushed their two children in a stroller, Hideo Koge began a six-mile walk to the nearest working train station. "We are leaving because we are scared," he said. Satoko Kawase, 26, who lives on the city's outskirts, put it bluntly: "It's like hell here."

When news of Kobe arrived, Californians were preparing to mark the first anniversary of the Northridge quake, which killed 61 people and turned 5,900 buildings to rubble. If the horrific scenes from across the Pacific at first reminded them of Los Angeles one year ago, the images quickly assumed a more frightening specter: this, and worse, could be California's tomorrow. Japanese engineers flock to the state after every major quake there to refine their knowledge of how temblors occur and how to survive them. Now American experts are packing for Kobe. Among the lessons they'll bring home:

Three days after the worst quake to hit Japan in 50 years, authorities in Tokyo admitted they were still overwhelmed by the relief task. As the Asabi evening newspaper headlined, QUAKE TOLL AT 3,083: RESPONSE FINALLY ON. Barely If rule No. I in the army is to secure your supply lines,then certainly the first task after an earthquake is to keep the roads clear. The Japanese didn't. As a result soldiers and firefighters were trapped in almost-unmoving miles-long lines of traffic. Firefighters were scarce, so bedraggled survivors had to battle block-long blazes themselves -- with buckets of sewer water. Fires raged out of control for hours. At one blaze, a man covering his mouth with a gauze mask shouted at a fireman: "What are you standing there for? Do something! Shoot water!" The fireman pointed to the drops trickling from his hose: "We don't have enough water," he said lamely. Kobe's central-ward chief Tokuzo Okawara admitted: "The first day was total panic. I've never felt so powerless in my life, knowing there were so many people buried in those burning houses. And knowing there was nothing I could do about it."

Even if transportation routes are clear, relief workers can't depend on getting enough emergency supplies. Food, water and blankets must be stockpiled. In Kobe they weren't. According to Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama, the city had only one third the food and water it needed. Survivors clutching buckets and kettles waited, zombielike, in interminable lines for water from emergency supply trucks. Some who were desperate for water scraped dirty liquid from the ground beneath ruptured pipes. Everything but misery was in short supply. There was not even enough dry ice to keep the dead from rotting. Some shelters were so short of food that they rationed one rice ball per person. "If you take milk you cannot have soup!" a bureaucrat bellowed at one shelter. (Japan's largest organized-crime syndicate was more generous: Yamaguchi-gumi dispensed food and water from its Kobe headquarters.) In a rarity for citizens who seldom question their government, survivors griped about the ineptitude. Reduced to foraging for food, survivor Yoshio Oka told the newspaper Mainichi, "The authorities haven't done anything. If we continue to rely on them we'll starve to death."

Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama visited the devastated area, wearing overalls and a look of bewilderment. "Cheer up and fight the hardships," he said at one emergency shelter. By Friday, he admitted to Parliament that his government's first response to the quake may have been "confused," and said, "It is imperative that we rethink and restructure our disaster-relief policies." In particular, Tokyo conceded that it should have asked the army to help Kobe sooner. And in an odd bid for atonement, cabinet ministers pledged a month's salary -- about $10,000 each -- for quake relief.

Why was relief so lame and so late? At city hall in suburban Nishinomiya, hundreds o homeless people who asked for help in finding new places to live received this telling response from the reigning bureaucrat: "I can't do anything about your house at this point. I suggest you go to another city." With the Japanese belief in self-reliance, perhaps it was natural that local officials -- in a region thought immune from earthquakes -- didn't plan better. Americans were struck by what the emergency crews didn't have: no coordinated teams of engineers and doctors, few fiber-optics cameras (to peer for survivors inside rubble), no search dogs (for three days) and no on-site medical treatment. "AR they seem to have are a bunch of chain saws and shovels," said Mark Ghilarducci, head of California's search-and-rescue office.

Ghilarducci saw the result of unpreparedness long before Kobe. When the Loma Prieta quake hit in 1989, the emergency system faltered, largely because of poor communications and the lack of designated search-and-rescue teams. In the aftermath, state officials established eight 56-person search-and-rescue teams and now require every shaken area to report damage to emergency coordinators within half an hour. The disaster plan even calls for notifying the U. S. State Department that the region might require international aid. During the Northridge disaster, emergency crews also learned that helicopters are good for soaking burning buildings. Water tankers are also on 24-hour call so fires can be fought even when water mains break. Blankets, food and first-aid equipment are stored at designated parks and recreation centers. The revised system got its first real test during Northridge. It succeeded brilliantly: almost all the fires were extinguished within eight hours, and no one was caught in rubble for more than seven hours. In Kobe, survivors were still being pulled from the debris five days after the temblor. By then, most of the collapsed buildings were tombs.

At first it seemed as if Japan's vaunted building code would be another Kobe casualty: initial reports suggested that even buildings, rail lines and roadways built to the latest earthquake resistance standards had crumbled. But in fact the vast majority of Kobe's modern buildings "seemed to have performed very well," says Haresh Shah, former head of civil engineering at Stanford University and now with a company surveying the damage in Kobe. "There may be one or two that have been damaged. But I haven't heard of any that fell." Kobe City Hall and a bank building, both about l5 stories high and built after the latest code kicked in in 1981, are standing and are apparently unscathed. Almost everything else around them, pre-1981, collapsed. Especially vulnerable were the traditional wood-frame-and-stucco houses, which fell as if they were made of matchsticks.

When modern structures did collapse, it seemed to be because the ground beneath them gave way. And that, too, provided a grim lesson. Like other coastal cities, including San Francisco, Tokyo and Sydney, much of Kobe is built on soft alluvial soil -- the powdery stuff deposited by waves -- rather than rock. That creates two problems. First, pressure released by a quake shoots water into soft sediments, liquefying them. Second, soft soils settle during the shaking generated by an earthquake. Anything on them settles, too -- violently. Not surprisingly, buildings near the Kobe port suffered disproportionately; those on the more solid hills fared better. After Kobe, predicts civil engineer Phillip Gould of Washington University, researchers will reconsider "how earthquake effects are amplified on soft soils and filled-in soils [like landfll]."

Since it's too late to not build next to San Francisco Bay or Osaka Bay, civil engineers are wondering, as they do after every major quake, whether tighter building codes can make the term "earthquake resistant" more meaningful than "water resistant" in a cheap watch. It won't be easy. The existing California building code may not be as strong as engineers believed. Scientists reported last month that even tall buildings with steel frames, built to California's 1991 code, are more prone to collapse than anyone had thought. A massive earthquake -- above 7 -- may make steel columns fracture and the entire building crumble. In fact, steel welds in 120 "earthquake-resistant" buildings cracked during Northridge, giving engineers the shock of their careers.

The new generation of earthquake-resistance techniques includes "seismic isolation," in which the base of a building or road lies atop rubber-and-steel pads. The pads act like springs or shock absorbers, reducing how much ground motion from a quake gets transmitted to the structure. During Northridge, one seismically isolated hospital survived virtually untouched, but an ordinary one next door sustained $389 million in damage. Two seismically isolated buildings near Kobe reportedly came through unscathed. In another promising technique, engineers use special steel configurations, lead shock absorbers and similar "dampers" to slow a structure's swaying during a quake. Tightening building codes, to say nothing of retrofitting, will be extraordinarily expensive. But probably not as expensive as the billions of dollars in damage that a quake beneath L.A. could inflict.

When the Japanese talk about "The Big One," they mean a quake the size of the 1923 disaster hitting Tokyo. That reached 8.2 on the seismic scale. (Japan's scale is slightly different from the United States': Kobe registered 7.2 according to the Japanese, 6.8 according to the Americans.) Since the death toll from such a quake today could hit 60,000, seismologists naturally worried about the catastrophic effects of the Philippine tectonic plate's surging into the Eurasian plate (map, page 29). That focus made sense -- western Japan had not suffered an earthquake since 1946 -- but it blinded scientists to the danger at lesser faults, like the secondary one called Arima-Takatsuki, which runs under Kobe. Engineers did not upgrade major highways in the region as they did around Tokyo; many older houses and commercial buildings in Kobe were never retrofitted with stronger supports or quake-resistant foundations.

Californians, too, may have more to fear from lesser faults than from the infamous San Andreas, the focus of Americans' Big One obsession. Northridge was triggered by the rupture of an unmapped fault known only to a few petroleum engineers. Geologists now believe that six major fault systems in the tectonic tangle under Los Angeles have the potential to trigger 7.2-to-7.6 quakes, wreaking even more destruction than one on the San Andreas, which passes under sparsely populated areas.

Just days after Kobe, engineers were revising their estimates of earthquake danger yet again. "Kobe is almost a perfect analogue for what we believe will happen someday on the Hayward fault [running along San Francisco Bay]," says seismologist Allan Lindh of the U.S. Geological Survey. The two faults could be seismic twins and when they rupture, the seismic waves speed underneath urban areas at the edge of a bay where soft soils can intensify the shaking and compound the damage.

Researchers know that much of China as well as Utah's Wasatch Front lie on secondary faults like those under Kobe and Hayward. But many of the world's less active faults have never been mapped. "The two parts of the world where we've done the most are the United States and Japan," says seismologist Clarence Allen of the California Institute of Technology. "Even in America, we have a long way to go, and [in] many other parts of the world we don't know very much at all."

That grim news could be the hardest lesson of all to absorb: no place on earth may be safe from the possibility of tectonic mayhem. More than 100,000 quakes occur each year around the globe. Experts -- and anxious citizens -- can only redouble their efforts to gauge, wire and monitor the restless plates, revamp their disaster-relief plans, revise their building codes and take some comfort from knowing that tremors on the magnitude of Kobe are still rare.

Seismologists think L.A. hasn't had enought earthquakes; strain is building up underground. It's like stretching a rubber band: eventually, it snaps.

Kobe shows that even quakes on "secondary' faulths can lead to epic disasters. Scientists predict that a tremblor on the Hayward fault, under San Francisco, could kill 3,000 and injure 10,000. TOLL OF RECENT MEGA-QUAKES

Date   Location            Magnitude        Deaths    


1995 Kobe, Japan 7.2 4,800+ 30,000+

1994 Nothridge, Calif., 6.8 61 20,000

1993 Marharashtra, India 6.4 30,000 280

1990 Luzon, Phillipines 7.7 1,621 2,000

1990 Northwestern Iran 7.7 40,000 7,000

1989 San Francisco 6.9 62 6,000

1988 Northwest Armenia 6.8 55,000 14,000

1985 Mexico City 8.1 4,200 4,000

1976 Tangshan, China 8.2 242,000 5,600

1970 Northern Peru 7.7 66,794 500

* Estimates in millions of dollars. Sources: 1995 World Almanac, Munich Re, Lloyd's of London

MAP: Japanese Earthquakes in This Century

Date-Place/Quake Magnitude/Deaths

1993 Kuril Islands / 8.1 / 8

1993 Kushiro / 8.2 / 2

1952 Tokachi / 8.2 / 33

1968 Tokachi / 7.9 / 52

1994 Sanriku / 7.5 / 3

1933 Sanriku / 8.1 / 3,064

1978 Miyagi / 7.4 / 28

1949 Imaichi/ 6.4 / 10

1923 Tokyo, Yokohama / 7.9 / 142,807

1930 Kitaizu / 7.3 / 272

1978 Izu Oshima / 7.0 / 25

1974 Izu Oshima / 6.9 / 38

1944 Higashi Nankai / 7.9 / 1,223

1946 Nankai / 8.0 / 1,464

1945 Tokai / 6.8 / 2,306

1943 Tottori / 7.2 / 1,083

1927 Kita Tango / 7.3 / 2,925

1925 Kita Tajima / 6.8 / 428

1948 Fukui / 7.1 / 3,895

1984 Nagano / 6.8 / 29

1964 Niigata / 7.5 / 26

1983 Sea of Japan / 7.7 / 104

1993 Okushiri / 7.8 / 230