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Armenia earthquake resistance

Armenia earthquake resistance


Since the 1988 earthquake killed tens of thousands and left half a million people homeless, Armenia has taken steps to study earthquake risks, update building codes, and retrofit old buildings. But while rescuers in Armenia are helping earthquake victims outside, there is still more work to be done indoors.

At 11:41 a.m. on December 7, 1988, a devastating earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale struck northern Armenia.

The children were at school and the adults were at work when the disaster struck. The official death toll was 25,000, but some estimate that as many as 50,000 died. Suren Araklian, director of the Georgsk Scientific Research Corporation in Armenia, says that 45,000 people have been pulled from the rubble, and 514,000 people have been left homeless.

Araklian estimates that 9 million square meters of residential space has been lost and direct material losses amounted to 20 billion US dollars. The earthquake destroyed 90 percent of Spitak and is often called the Spitak earthquake, but it also destroyed half of Armenia’s second largest city Gyumri, which at that time was still known as Leninakan.

Schools and every hospital around Spitak were destroyed. At least 130,000 Armenians were wounded, but given that 80 percent of the medical staff had been killed, providing treatment for the wounded was difficult. Two-thirds of the victims were children under the age of 18.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev formally asked the United States and the international community for humanitarian assistance; 113 countries sent aid and rescue.

“The first and main reason the earthquake was so destructive is that the seismic hazard was underestimated,” Dr. Hrachya Petrosian, former head of the Armenian National Earthquake Protection Survey, tells Emerging Europe.

The second reason is that there were few building models in the country, and the Spitak earthquake experience proved that some of them could withstand the vibrations while others could not. After the Spitak earthquake, the seismic behavior of the buildings was analyzed in detail and design models that were not able to withstand the vibration were stopped,” explains Dr. Petrosian.

In Gyumri, 96 out of 135 Soviet-designed nine-story buildings collapsed in the 1988 earthquake. Today, about 14 percent of the buildings in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, are of the same style.

Dr. Petrosian points out that corruption, the illegal sale of low-quality building materials, and improvised local changes to structural elements of previously approved building designs, have contributed to low levels of earthquake-resistant construction.

Earthquake protection

Two and a half years after the earthquake, in 1991, Armenia—now independent—created the National Earthquake Protection Survey. The agency collects and analyzes data to assess current seismic risks and reduce earthquake risks by raising awareness of the population through education on earthquake protection behaviour.

In 1999, two government earthquake risk reduction programs were launched and implemented in the city of Yerevan and across Armenia, respectively. In 2002, after consultation with international experts, Armenia’s Earthquake Protection Law became the first of its kind in the former Soviet Union.

Recent research indicates that the most seismically prone regions of Armenia are at risk of earthquakes of magnitude 9.0 on the logarithmic scale—a hundred times more powerful than the 1988 Spitak earthquake. Ninety percent of school buildings in Armenia date from the Soviet era, when plans were The buildings are only designed to withstand magnitude 7.0 earthquakes (despite building shortcuts that have reduced their resilience). If a magnitude 9 earthquake hits Armenia, between 70 and 80 percent of the buildings could be severely damaged.

Funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), a consortium of three companies from Italy, the United States and Armenia worked with the World Bank to develop a comprehensive map of seismic hazards in Armenia based on the expected maximum earthquake in each region.

Legally binding earthquake-resistant building design codes require engineers and planners to construct buildings to standards that match their exposure to earthquake hazards. The codes were most recently updated in December 2020.

“The preparation and adoption of the map was really a milestone in the earthquake-resistant construction of Armenia,” says Dr. Petrosyan.

The problems continued

However, issues remain. Some developers allegedly bribe special inspectors to sign off their building plans as earthquake-proof, and while $89.3 million in aid from the Asian Development Bank recently retrofitted fourteen schools, there are many more period buildings Soviet still needs to be renewed.

Despite this, due to the proactive measures that have been taken since 1988, the situation in Armenia looks much brighter than in neighboring Turkey. The country has invested meaningfully in its earthquake resilience which should contribute significantly to mitigating damage when a new earthquake hits the country.

Indeed, when massive earthquakes killed thousands in Turkey and Syria in February, Armenia sent shipments of aid and rescue workers to rescue people from the rubble — despite having no formal diplomatic relations with the latter.

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