Studying Earthquakes, Saving Lives
Henry Degenkolb doing EQ reconnaissance work
In 1952 Henry Degenkolb
one of the major figures in Structural Engineering, had been designing buildings
for more than 15 years to withstand earthquakes but had never seen one. He
decided that wasn't good enough. So he visited Tehachapi in Kern County, the
site of a quake in 1952, launching his quest and that of other engineers for
firsthand knowledge. "People who chase earthquakes, instead of reading a
report and looking at pictures - they
see the damage and the lives lost.
That's largely what determines their attitudes." Go to Some
of our Icons/Heroes
for more information about Henry Degenkolb and other
celebrated Structural Engineers.
For the last 50 years, Structural Engineers from the Bay Area have made
it a practice to visit the site of every major earthquake to learn firsthand
from their effect on buildings and other structures. Earthquake sites, in
short, have become the laboratories for the Structural Engineer. Go to Developing
Codes and Standards for Safer Structures for
more information on new codes and standards that were developed following historic
Old St. Mary's Church in Chinatown, after the 1906 Earthquake
One of the most important discoveries that Structural Engineers have made
in the past 50 years is that earthquakes can cause a wide
variation in the ground motion even in building sites in close proximity. In
other words, the ground acceleration can differ from one parcel to another,
creating a kind of randomness in the degree of damage caused to buildings in
the same vicinity.
In other words, an earthquake may knock all buildings down except one on any given block in San Francisco. The remaining building could have survived for
a variety of reasons involving the type of ground, the ground motion and the quality of the structure.
Structural Engineers visit sites of
earthquakes such as in Guam in 1993.
When determining the quality of a building's safety, therefore, Structural
Engineers cannot guarantee its condition simply by reviewing its performance
in any given earthquake. Just because a building survived the 1906 or a more
recent earthquake, for example, does not mean it is earthquake-resistant today.
In 1989, in the Marina section of San Francisco, for example, some buildings
survived the Loma Prieta earthquake but there is no technical explanation why
Structural Engineers know for sure when a building will not survive based
on their analysis and observation of a building's structure, material, and age.
And they know what needs to be done to build a safe structure and retrofit
an older one. But when earthquakes hit, and at-risk buildings are not affected,
Structural Engineers know it's the randomness of the earthquake at work.