An earthquake lesson, straight from China

jill's picture

A magnitude 5.0 earthquake struck this morning in Yunnan, southwest China, and caused great damage to the areas in and around the epicenter of Binchuan County.  Twenty-eight people were injured, and 300,000 people are affected. Over a thousand houses and other buildings collapsed, with more than thirty thousand homes and buildings damaged to varying degrees.

So why is there so much destruction in what should be only a moderately damaging event? If any country in the world should be prepared for earthquake hazards, it's China, which is one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world. The country has the longest documented history of earthquakes, going back more than two thousand years. About 200 of its cities with a population of over one million are at risk for a magnitude 7 earthquake or larger. In fact, the most deadly earthquake of the 20th century occurred in 1976, destroying the city of Tangshan with a casualty level of 242,000. With so much earthquake activity across the country, you would think their building codes, which are just as good as in California or Japan, would be strongly enforced.

But the story is somewhat complicated. To begin, China's urban populations are growing steadily, with the fastest growth happening in large cities located in the more seismically active provinces. This means larger populations are at greater risk. And even though China's current seismic regulations contain detailed requirements for practically every type of structure, from one-story playhouses to multi-level apartments made of mud, wood and stone, the building codes are not always followed and enforced. Unregulated construction practices at least partially explain unnecessary building damage, human and animal injuries, and in several of Yunnan Province's other recent earthquakes, hundreds or even thousands of deaths.

Adding insult to injury, earthquakes are specifically excluded from most property insurance policies in China. Just as California residents have learned, Chinese homeowners must buy a special policy and pay extra for it. So those thousands of people in Yunnan who lost their homes or businesses in today's earthquake are likely to learn that their home protection policies are worthless.

Lesson for today: do a little homework before your home is damaged from an earthquake or other natural hazard. Figure out whether your home or place of business is at risk. There are many guides to get you started -- "Step 4" of "Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country" is a good example.

And make sure your insurance covers your risk! How do you find out? Start with the OpenHazards "Hazard Viewer" and "Home Response" tools. Then make a decision about whether you need to upgrade your homeowner or renter's insurance policy.

Resources I used for this entry:

Comments

Raymondbishop's picture

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