A massive earthquake will hit Bucharest. It is only a matter of time and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Neither, however, is much being done to lessen its impact.
By Georgiana Ilie
Translation by Craig Turp
Originally published in June 2017 in issue #28 of DoR, a journal of Romanian nonfiction.
There will be no warning. Dogs will not bark. Sparrows will not leave their trees. Nor will the calculations of those who claim to be able to predict earthquakes give us any clue as to what is about to happen.
The first to know will be Bucharest’s emergency services, via text. The nuclear reactors at Pitești and Kozlodui (Bulgaria) will shut down automatically. At about the same time 3400 or so followers of two social media accounts connected to the servers of the National Institute of Earth Physics (INFP) will receive a short message: “***EWS*** A 7.5 #earthquake has been detected”. EWS stands for Early Warning System. An even more cryptic message will be sent out on Telegram: “Earthquake Magnitude 7.5”.
Just 25 seconds after the alarm has been raised, during which time the P (Prima) shockwave would have risen from the depths of the earth, buildings, streets, parks, lakes, water and gas pipes, electricity pylons and the potato stuck on top of a stick in Piata Revolutiei will be violently thrust upwards. Bucharest crashing back down to earth will be the first sound.
Then comes the most destructive part of the earthquake. An unholy uproar will be heard, but not from the ground (shockwaves make no sound), instead from buildings as they are torn apart and collapse. S (Secunda) moves through the ground like a whiplash. It bends road surfaces, breaks apart blocks, dislocates staircases. L (Love) comes next, like a snake attacking prey: left-right then face-on. It is known as a ‘horizontal scissor movement’. L will cause Bucharest’s 2000 km of gas pipes to break. The last wave, R (Rayleigh) will make the ground shake and turn upside-down.
From shockwave P to the last tremor of shockwave R around a minute will pass. And that is just the beginning.
Bucharest is the largest urban agglomeration in Romania and is situated in the Vrâncea fault’s area of impact. During previous earthquakes it is where the most people have died and where the most destruction has taken place. The city has more than two million inhabitants, thousands of old or tall buildings, an underground railway, a reservoir complete with an old dam that could break and flood a quarter of the city, Romania’s largest gas distribution network and is home — let us not forget — to just about every institution key to the functioning of the Romanian state. Also here are the authorities who prevaricate over the issue of consolidating at-risk buildings, the poorly resourced emergency services who refuse to share responsibility with Bucharest’s citizens, and the public at large which has no idea about what to do in case of a calamity. And, over the past year, it has become home to a number of activists who are trying to begin a public debate about earthquakes, looking for alternative ways to protect as many people as possible, studying how other countries deal with emergencies.
They do this because there is no doubt: following the next massive earthquake, over 7.5 magnitude, the city and its inhabitants will suffer like never before. This is the story of our future and the things we don’t do to limit the risks.
This article is based on simulations made by specialists at the National Institute of Research and Development in Construction, Urbanism and Sustainable Territorial Development (URBAN INCERC) and the University of Construction Technology, on intervention plans drawn up by the Department for Emergencies and on the conclusions of the SEISM 2016 exercise, corroborated with data from similar, real situations, both local and international (Turkey, Italy and Japan). The scenario deals with a mid-range earthquake, and its purpose is not to scare or to provoke fear, but to raise both public and personal awareness of the need to make preparations for disaster.
The subject of earthquakes is omnipresent. Events of the past year — an earthquake in Italy last August killed almost 300 people (including 11 Romanians), a tremor was felt in Bucharest in September and a technical error caused a popular Romanian news app (Biziday) to issue an earthquake warning — have only made the subject more relevant. History suggests that an earthquake is inevitable, even it we cannot predict when it will strike.
We do know, however, what awaits us.
Ioana Nenciu never walks next to buildings at risk of collapsing during an earthquake. In order to walk the one and a half kilometres from Piața Romană to Universitate in central Bucharest, she walks only on the right hand side of the road, where the pavement is at its widest and she can be a safe distance from the buildings which overlook it. There are at high-risk buildings on this side of the street, some with balconies that barely cling on, others with facades that have begun to give way and others which feature huge columns that are not in any way resistant. And yet at least she is far enough away from them
Nenciu, 27, is an urbanist specialising in urban and regional development who, before moving from Brasov to study in Bucharest, first consulted a microseismic map of the capital. The map, periodically updated by the INFP, shows how shockwaves circulate in different areas. A shockwave’s acceleration speed and the amount of time the earth vibrates affect the intensity of an earthquake which is higher in some areas (Otopeni, Băneasa, Casa Presei, Pantelimon) than others (Tineretului, Metalurgiei, IMGB). Nenciu chose an apartment in Tineretului, in a 10-storey block built after the 1977 earthquake, after new construction rules had been introduced and because the area is one of the capital’s safest. “My mum used to say: Wouldn’t it be better to study in Cluj? Bucharest’s not a good idea, they have earthquakes.” Nenciu chose Bucharest because the university is better but nevertheless took as many precautions as possible to put herself out of harm’s way. She has fixed her furniture to the walls and watches where she walks, choosing routes from place to place with care.
Following the fire at Colectiv (a Bucharest nightclub that burned in October 2015 and killed 64 people) in which she lost two colleagues (the architect Catalina Ionita and urbanist Mihai Alexandru, a guitarist in the band Goodbye to Gravity, which was performing at Colectiv that night), Nenciu and a group of friends decided that they wanted to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future. Taking as their starting point a new law (282/2015) which forbids all commercial activity in buildings designated as an earthquake risk — a law which led to the closure, at the end of 2015, of almost 200 restaurants, bars, theatres and cinemas — they set about taking stock of Bucharest’s problematic buildings, and the people occupying them.
“We wanted to go beyond the buildings themselves, to learn about the social risk,” says Nenciu. “The City Council had no data about who was living in these buildings, their registers had not been updated. We wanted to find out who owned the buildings, and the apartments in them. We gathered together as much information as we could, even finding out who was more than six months behind with their utility bills.” These efforts convinced Nenciu and her friends that the scale of the risk to which Bucharest is exposed is far more serious than generally thought. One of the biggest shocks was discovering that the largest owner of at risk buildings is the Romanian state. And that it has tenants.
The project is called Seismic Alert and is the first civil initiative of its kind. The team reached out and talked to tenants and owners associations that represent almost half of the 12,000 people living in the 345 buildings classed as being seismic risk level one (those which will collapse during an earthquake). They then put all of the vulnerable buildings on an interactive map of the city — online at seismic-alert.ro — and thoroughly examined the city’s readiness for an earthquake, all of which was finalised in a report called Bucharest. The Vulnerable City. They organised meetings with the authorities and began a social media awareness campaign, telling people about consolidation and problems with the system. Much of the team’s work however has continued to be done in high risk apartment blocks, talking with property owners who want to consolidate their buildings but who come up against all sorts of obstacles.
According to current risk assessments (which classifies buildings from one to four, with one being the most at risk of collapse in an earthquake similar to that of 1977) almost 800 buildings are officially considered to be at risk. Of the 345 which are classified as risk level one and which are obliged to display a red warning disk, 175 make up a special category known as ‘public hazard.’ This means that they comprise of four or more levels and have commercial spaces on the ground floor, making them a risk to customers and passers-by, not only the people who live in them.
The reality however is that Bucharest probably has over 2350 buildings at risk. At the beginning of the 1990s, almost 1600 buildings were surveyed using different criteria, and ranked U1, U2 and U3 according to how quickly they should be consolidated (two, five and 10 years respectively). When the evaluation criteria changed, surveyors did not return to these buildings in order to reassess them. They have managed to swerve the law, and remain vulnerable, crumbling by the day.
Public funds for consolidation are only available for the 175 risk level one buildings considered a public hazard. It is debatable, depending on where you stand on the political spectrum, as to whether or not it is even morally acceptable to use public money to consolidate privately owned buildings, whose owners might then be able to cash in. In reality very few buildings have been consolidated, and at such high cost, that the value of investment — the initial sum paid for the property plus the cost of consolidation — cannot be covered by the sale price. In practice the cost of each consolidated block increased by at least €800/m2, making them uncompetitive on the market. In several countries, the state does not finance consolidation at all, only demolitions (Japan) going as far as to fine building owners who do not demolish their at risk buildings (New Zealand).
It is sometimes all too easy to spot the most at risk buildings: houses in the Old Town with damaged, peeling facades, abandoned houses packed with illegal squatters, tall blocks, crumbling on major thoroughfares. Most, however, are not visible. Many exteriors have been covered with polystyrene insulation, covering the cracks. In others, pillars have been cut away by tenants unhappy at a lack of storage space. Others still house shops, offices, expensive Airbnb rentals or newsrooms (such as ours, which is in a building classed U3 in 1993 and should have been consolidated in 10 years. We have no idea how risky it is today).
Although a national consolidation programme exists, just 20 buildings in Bucharest have been consolidated since 1990 with public funds (a further 70 have been consolidated privately). This is because the process is labourious. Firstly, all the owners in a block need to agree. In many cases owners live abroad, or else do not have their property deeds and titles in order. Most often they simply cannot afford the process of consolidation. Then, if all of the owners have managed to come together and file a formal request at the city council, it can take up to two years for approval because the Development and Investment Department has too few employees for the amount of work it is expected to deal with. Once approved, owners need to leave the building for anything between two and four years, during which time they hand over all control of their properties to the company carrying out the consolidation work. The council selects that company via public tender and owners have no control over how it goes about the consolidation. Then, work is always done on building interiors: new pillars and supplementary resistance walls are added, meaning that people always return to smaller spaces than those they left.
“Ideally there would be somebody at the council who would act as a liaison between property owners and construction firms”, says Nenciu. That way, people would feel as though they are taking part in the process. They are, after all, paying: although the state pays the constructor, owners are obliged to pay back the money in installments, over 25 years. Only those with very small incomes (or no income at all) are excepted from paying the money back. Even then, they still need to have enough money to pay rent for the period during which the consolidation takes place, and then to decorate and fit out their property once they get it back from the constructor.
Given that all apartment owners within a block must agree to begin the process of consolidation, the overwhelming majority of at-risk buildings do not even get the chance to be included in the national programme. Even if just one apartment owner refuses, the process becomes blocked. An amendment to the current law, proposed in March by the Ministry of Regional Development, Public Administration and European Funds, would prevent that from happening: if a majority of apartment owners want to consolidate their block their application to do so is approved, then those who oppose would have to accept being forced — by the city council — to leave their apartments so that work can take place. (Bucharest’s mayor, Gabriela Firea, told us — via a press officer — that until the legislation is changed, nothing can be done to speed up the rhythm of consolidation.)
Besides those buildings formally identified as being at-risk, there are many others. Tall, extremely unstable blocks with commercial spaces on the ground floor, which engineers describe as “giants with legs of jelly.” Blocks in which apartment owners have knocked down supporting walls without approval in order to make their kitchens bigger or extend their living rooms. Blocks made far heavier than ever intended by tons of wall and floor tiles added after 1990. Blocks and houses damaged in 1977, “repaired” in just a few days so that Nicolae Ceausescu could wipe away as soon as possible all traces of the earthquake to show just how much the state had done to ensure people did not suffer. At the time people were told an “earthquake proof” cement was being used for repairs, a huge fat lie which many still believe to this day.
Professor Radu Văcăreanu, rector at the University of Construction Technology says that as well as the problems raised by Nenciu’s activists, the process is blocked a series of myths. Speaking at a public debate organised by the Group for Social Dialogue in 2016 Văcăreanu summarised them.
First: “if a building survived the 1940 and 1977 earthquakes then it is safe”. No, buildings do not get stronger with each earthquake, they become weaker. Before 1963 (when Romania published its first building code to take earthquakes into account) buildings were not designed with earthquakes in mind. Any resistance these buildings may have is pure luck.
Second: “it was consolidated after 1977”. No. It was repaired, not consolidated. Third: “we have heard that consolidation can make the situation worse”. No. Many buildings constructed before 1963 have no earthquake resistance at all, no reinforced concrete flooring, no vertical support and no foundations. You cannot make a situation worse than that. Fourth: “consolidation can be done quickly, with apartment owners still living in their properties”. No, they can’t. Fifth: “the list is wrong, the assessment is wrong”. No. The list of 120 at risk buildings is the tip of the iceberg, it refers to tall buildings.
The list of 120 buildings was drawn up by the authorities at the end of the 1990s following initial assessments and includes tall buildings with a large number of inhabitants: blocks with 25–50 apartments, such as those found on boulevards Magheru, Nicolae Bălcescu and Dacia. Buildings in which Văcăreanu would not set foot “even to visit somebody”. The list partly overlaps with the current list of risk level one buildings, to which were added shorter buildings (with four storeys). Adding these small buildings, of just one or two levels, is an exaggeration according to Văcăreanu, because the impact of their collapse is not comparable to that of taller buildings, which he thinks is where resources should be concentrated.
“Do we want to save buildings or do we want to save people? We have a tendency to be extremists, to say «We want to consolidate buildings so that if an earthquake hits they will behave just like new buildings.» It can’t be done.”
What is important, says Văcăreanu, is to invest in infrastructure, in transport, water and gas networks, in schools and hospitals, because it is their resilience on which we will depend when we set about recovering from an earthquake. In any country, schools, sports halls and universities become shelters for those left homeless following an earthquake. The fact that we are not investing in these things is proof that we do not know where our priorities lie.
Together, the lack of consolidation and failure to invest in infrastructure will have serious repercussions when an earthquake next hits Bucharest. Văcăreanu estimates, in a study which analyses six scenarios, that a medium strength earthquake of a magnitude of 7.5 at a depth of 90 kilometres would cause severe damage to over 42 per cent of Bucharest’s 130,000 buildings. Some will completely collapse, particularly those built before 1963, while others will become unsafe for occupation. Less than 20 per cent will have just minor damage and only eight per cent — less than one building in ten — will suffer no damage at all.
On May 30th, 1990, Dragoș Tătaru, then a pupil in Year Three, forgot his maths homework and went home to get it. On his way back, as he walked along the edge of the main road in the village of Vrâncioaia, Vrancea county, the street in front of him arched upwards like a carpet being shaken during a spring clean. Immediately aftewards he awoke in the ditch by the side of the road, as if the ground had been pulled from underneath him.
That earthquake, a 6.9, was followed the next day by two more: one of 6.4 and another of 6.1. Twelve people died in Romania and Moldova in buildings which partially collapsed; in Bulgaria somebody died of a heart attack. Tătaru was unharmed and went on to become a doctor in geophysics and researcher at the INFP. Today, at 36, he shares his experience of growing up at the epicentre of Romania’s most destructive earthquakes in order to educate people about tremors. Tall and nice, he talks a little like a teacher, with a smile that punctuates every phrase, whether he’s debunking an earthquake myth (such as that which suggests animals can feel earthquakes before humans: they can’t) or discussing those people who are convinced that they can calculate when an earthquake will hit. (“The only thing we know for certain is that there will be an earthquake.”) When he is not at work at the command centre of the institute at Măgurele, he travels around the country to promote awareness. “Information about earthquakes is not usually drummed into children, and so it is difficult for adults to comprehend it”, he says. That’s why he works with teachers and children, trying to find a way to “drum in” information throughout a child’s education. His mobile exhibition includes visual simulations and games in which children create different constructions and subject them to seismic testing to see how they would be affected. They also learn how to protect themselves during an earthquake.
Deep below Vrâncioaia, his home village, three large tectonic plates go head to head: the East European plate and the Intra-Alpine and Moesic subplates. When the plates collide pressure forces them to bend before breaking apart at the weakest point. The energy released by these breakages is an earthquake.
Vrancea is the most active seismic area in Romania and the only subcrustal one, meaning that it impacts upon a vast area. The deeper an earthquake is, the further away it is felt. Vrancea earthquakes are felt all over eastern and south-eastern Romania, transmitted along an imaginary line between Iași and Bucharest. In exceptional cases, such as the 1802 earthquake, the strongest Vrancea quake ever recorded, shockwaves can be felt as far as Rome and St. Petersburg.
Earthquakes are measured in two ways: intensity and magnitude. The Mercalli scale evaluates intensity: the amount of destruction an earthquake causes. The further from the epicentre the lower the Mercalli value, from I (barely perceptible) to XII (catastrophic, total destruction). The only earthquake in Romania to ever measure XII was that of 1802. It lasted for two minutes and caused the Coltei Tower to collapse, as well as the bell towers of many churches and large numbers of houses. As the earth cracked and opened up the smell of sulphur filled the air. Fires followed as terracotta hearths toppled over. In Brasov the Black Church was damaged and in Sibiu the Catholic Church collapsed. Just four people died, however, for the earthquake struck during the day and there were in those days no tall buildings. Bucharest also had a much smaller population, just 30,000 people.
The other means by which earthquakes are measured is scientific, based on data supplied by the 200 seismic stations situated all over the country. While it is common to refer to this as the Richter Scale (actually an older method) its correct name is the Moment Magnitude Scale, Mw, the current internationally recognised standard.
The Mw scale is logarithmic, making a 6Mw earthquake 32 times more powerful than a 5Mw quake, while 7Mw is more than 1000 times more powerful than 5Mw.
Tectonic plates move constantly, and do so at the same speed nails grow. Their movement has given birth to continents, to seas, to mountains and to volcanoes, while the same movement has also destroyed much of what it has created. Tectonic plate movement also allows us to observe repetition in seismic activity. In Vrancea, significant earthquakes — of a magnitude of between 7 and 7.5Mw — occur three times per century: sufficiently often to cause great damage, sufficiently rare not to remain in the collective consciousness and ensure we educate ourselves.
The largest Vrancea earthquakes of the 20th century took place on October 6th, 1908, November 10th, 1940, and March 4th, 1977. Not a great deal is known about the 1908 earthquake, apart from the fact that it happened at 23:40, that it destroyed old houses in Bucharest, southern Moldavia and eastern Muntenia and had an intensity of IX (violent) and measured 7.1Mw. The 1940 earthquake struck at 3:39 in the morning and had an intensity of X (intense) and 7.1Mw. It caused between 500 and 1000 deaths (there are no details about the victims) and provoked the collapse of many buildings in Bucharest. Total damage came to US$172 million. The most famous block to fall was the Carlton building, a reinforced concrete structure completed in 1936 which was home to more than 200 people. At 47 metres in height it was the tallest building in Bucharest at the time. It was not, however, built to resist an earthquake and broke in two, the upper part twisting before collapsing into the street while the lower section subsided (an effect known as ‘the sandwich’, in which each floor falls one on top of the other while the supporting brickwork flies out of the side) killing 150 people, including the engineer who had built it. A further 65,000 buildings were damaged around the country.
The 1977 earthquake was classed as XI (extreme), and measured 7.4Mw. It killed almost 1600 people, 1500 in Bucharest. It left in its wake more than 11,000 injured, 33,000 homes were destroyed and 35,000 families left homeless. Hundreds of thousands of apartments were damaged around the country. Damages totalled US$2 billion. A further 120 people died in Bulgaria, in buildings which collapsed.
That the earthquake occurred during the communist period made things more difficult for the Romanians who survived it. Although the propaganda of the time would have us believe that all of the survivors received new homes the very next day, alongside food and other assistance, new research carried out by Mădălin Hodor in the archives of the Securitate, the former secret police, has revealed a far more grotesque and cynical truth. In a series of articles published in the periodical Revista 22, Hodor shows how there was no coordinated intervention. Foreign specialists, who came complete with search and rescue dogs, were for a while forbidden from entering wreckage to look for survivors amidst fears that they might be spies. Dead bodies were piled up along with rubble through which young children were forced to search for bricks that had remained intact. They became ill. People were told that they could move back into buildings which had cracked, as long as they did not run up and down the stairs. False consolidation took place: cracks in buildings were covered with cement. Engineers were not allowed to properly evaluate affected buildings on threat of prison. Shops on the ground floor of damaged buildings were ordered to open the next day. Those left homeless had to stay for months in makeshift accommodation. On top of everything else, everyone was made to volunteer with the clean-up and reconstruction of the city and also to give up a percent of their pay as a solidarity tax. Few received compensation to meet the cost of repairs and hundreds of millions of dollars in donations sent from abroad never reached the people who actually needed it.
Hodor’s conclusion is that Ceaușescu used the earthquake as an excuse to destroy a part of Bucharest in order to build the Casa Poporului (The People’s House, the second largest administrative building in the world) and a new city centre along the lines of what he had seen on a visit to North Korea, and that the foreign donations were used to finance this megalomaniac vision. All the while people were lied to, told their buildings were safe and that they had nothing to fear.
The next earthquake will fall on these lies.
On March 3rd, 2017, at 19:52, just a couple hours before the 40th anniversary of the 1997 earthquake, when television stations were full of images of collapsed blocks and emotional eyewitness accounts, 200,000 people received an alert from a news application called Biziday: “Vrancea has detected an earthquake measuring 10 on the Richter Scale at a depth of 10km. Keep calm and go with your families….”. On iPhones nothing else fit on the screen. If you clicked on the notification the app itself did not open up. Instead users were taken to a test website where developers were checking various different functions, and nothing was loading.
It is not known how many people simply ignored the message, but the next 13 notifications, received just a few seconds later, made many people panic. Some jumped over the turnstiles in the metro and headed up the stairs towards the exit. One man grabbed his cat, left his apartment and reached the ground floor entrance where he prevented his neighbours from entering. Others grabbed their kids, fled outside and warned others to do the same, as an earthquake was coming. Others boasted on Facebook that they had made it from the fifth to the ground floor in 20 seconds. In fact, almost everyone who posted on Facebook did exactly what they shouldn’t: they used the stairs, the most fragile part of a block, and the first to collapse.
If the warning had been real, many would have died for not knowing how to proceed in such circumstances. However, the alert system created by INFP does not send warnings for values measuring higher than 8Mw, because that is the maximum moment magnitude for Vrancea. Moise Guran, the journalist behind the Biziday application, at first suggested that his servers had been broken into, and then refused to give further details. He explained on his blog that he wanted to offer Bucharest’s residents this function, which would alert them 20–25 seconds before the shockwaves arrived, in order to educate them. He had made a short film which informs people what to do in case of an earthquake and how the alert works: a message much like that received on March 3rd and an audio message which tells you to stand under a supporting beam, to not use the stairs and to not use the lift. The message did not however come with 14 notifications.
After the incident, Guran explained on his blog that although the application has 200,000 users, only 40,000 had seen the explanatory film. He seemed genuinely shocked at how many people had used the stairs to exit buildings. And yet while notifications were active from the moment the app was installed, users had not received a notification telling them to watch the film. Guran’s intentions were sound, especially as there is no other service of a similar nature available to the wider public. A combination of technical errors and the lack of confidence the incident provoked have buried the idea. On the same evening the app was disconnected from INFP’s servers.
On various seismic forums, such as the “Earthquake in Romania!” Facebook group, there was much chatter about whether or not the whole thing had been a conspiracy designed to discredit the warning system. Several members of the group — some amateur seismologists, others specialist who have worked in Japan or the emergency services — support the introduction of a warning system to alert the public in order to increase vigilance. They claim that if people were warned of every earthquake of 4Mw or above they would be less fearful, and in the case of real danger would act rationally, not emotionally. The INFP itself is in agreement and has tried to create accessible applications, but has yet to find a practical solution. Professor Constantin Ionescu, the institute’s director, says that they tried out a free app made by a volunteer, but it did not work to an acceptable standard. A Twitter account (@cutremurinfo) and a Telegram channel (a chat application, @alertacutremur_bot) are the two ways INFP communicates at present.
An alert is possible owing to the fact that the speed of data transmission from the INFP’s Vrancea servers is faster than the speed of the shockwaves by around 20–25 seconds. Emergency services and the local authorities have been receiving text alerts since 2005. Another system, operational since 2013, facilitates the automatic shutdown of high-risk installations: the Nuclear Research in Institute in Pitesti and the power station at Kozlodui are hooked up to it. So far it has sent 28 alerts.
What can you do with 25 seconds? You can take shelter under a supporting girder or under a solid table with your family, you can turn off the cooker, the gas or water supply, you can get dressed. Knowing the magnitude of the earthquake about to hit, you can also prepare yourself mentally, which is no small thing. The problem with notification by text is that it’s technically limited, says Ionescu, and that it cannot be rolled out to the entire country as there is not enough capacity to notify many people at one time. He has two telephone numbers registered in the system, one at the top of the list and one at the bottom. The alert for the second number only arrived after the last earthquake had struck.
For some time, the Department of Emergencies (DSU), which coordinates the emergency services in Romania, has positioned itself in opposition to a warning system because it would “provoke panic”. Following a conference at the beginning of this year attended by Japanese experts, Ionescu says the DSU’s position changed. It is now preparing to add earthquake alerts to its own application, DSU, installed by more than 100,000 users. At the same time, the INFP is in discussions with the Ministry of Development to create its own application, available to all. It will also create a warning system for earthquakes from other areas, not just Vrancea, and tsunamis. Ionescu says that these systems are created in the first place to protect utility networks and sensitive industrial installations, but that none of the gas, water or electricity suppliers in Romania make use of them. Nor do railway companies, hospitals or mobile telephone operators. Connecting to the automatic shutdown systems implies a cost for anyone using it, as their own systems need to be adapted.
A 7.5Mw earthquake will last about a minute. Around 3000 firefighters and emergency (SMURD) personnel will be on hand in Bucharest to offer first response assistance. A few hundred volunteers, trained by the Red Cross, will also be available. A further 4000 firefighters, from 25 others counties, will head for Bucharest without waiting to be told to do so. A standing order is in place which will be put into effect in case of a calamity, releasing a part of the firefighters for duty in Bucharest (but without leaving their local populations vulnerable).
The firefighters will carry with them multi-risk containers packed with search and rescue equipment, including apparatus to assist in the search for people via radio, tents, camp beds as well as fire engines, ladders and lorries for transport. The vast majority of this equipment has been purchased in the last year using European funds and are the most up-to-date Romania has ever had. A few convoys will arrive after a couple of hours, others after eight, while others will have to make detours of hundreds of kilometres to avoid roads damaged by the violent shockwaves or rippled by the liquefaction of the ground (a phenomenon which appears in the south-western Carpathians when the vibrations of the soil coincide with an earthquake, combining to make the earth behave like a liquid which drowns anything in its wake).
However many arrive, there will not be enough, especially as there will be emergencies throughout the rest of the country: towns and villages close to the epicentre will suffer massive damage. In 1940, in Panciu, Vrancea county, just five houses were left standing. Iasi, which also has a significant number of earthquake-risk buildings, will also suffer badly. Rescue teams from northern Moldavia and Transylvania will head for Iasi.
Aftershocks — often almost as strong as the earthquake itself — will make the rescue effort more difficult, as they can destabilise damaged buildings in which searches are being made.
If the earthquake hits in 10 years time, 61 per cent of the IGSU’s staff will be more than 45 years old, and just 15 per cent aged under 39, owing to mass-recruitment when it became a professional organisation following the withdrawal of compulsory military service. It now only recruits 100 people per year. Regardless of how well prepared these people are, those aged over 45 will not be able to sustain a long-term rescue effort for very long — a vulnerability already identified by independent experts. IGSU representatives say that they are prepared to recruit volunteers, who could then be drafted into vacant posts. They currently have 136 volunteers and 3000 employees in Bucharest.
An earthquake scenario drawn up by 2003 by Emil-Sever Georgescu, a scientific researcher at URBAN INCERC, shows that 1000 tall buildings will collapse, either totally or partially. (The scenario is not up-to-date. We asked Georgescu for a meeting to see how it could be updated, but he replied only to say that such things would require a consultancy contract which would cost “hundreds, perhaps thousands of euros”. This despite being paid by the public purse to carry out such research).
From here on in we know what will happen by taking the experience of other, similar earthquakes in Europe and Japan. Some buildings will catch fire. Thick dust will make it difficult to see more than a metre ahead, even with the bright lights brought in by rescue teams. Roads will be blocked by rubble — both main roads, on which tall buildings will fall, as well as side streets, onto which balconies and decorations from smaller buildings will fall. Cars parked on the road or pavement will make it difficult for fire engines and ambulances to get close. The DSU’s earthquake intervention plans claim that hundreds of policemen and military personnel will direct traffic and will began to free up main roads to allow access to the city’s eight emergency hospitals. Other members of the police and gendarmes will form security cordons around damaged areas to prevent looting.
An earthquake which hit at night would, says INCERC’s scenario, find 450,000 people sleeping in buildings with a high or medium risk of sustaining serious damage. At least 6,500 will die; 16,000 will suffer serious injuries. If the earthquake takes place during the day, the number of people killed and injured is estimated to be half those figures. For the thousands of people who will need to be taken to hospital — for multiple injuries, burns shock — vacant beds will be difficult to find. If the system struggled to cope with the 200 people seriously injured after the fire at Colectiv, after an earthquake it will totally collapse. Some hospital buildings will themselves be damaged, others will not have electricity because their emergency generators will not work. Medical supplies will run out in just a few hours, in some hospitals they will not exist to begin with.
Before the earthquake has even ended hundreds of fires will break out all over Bucharest. Wherever there are exposed gas pipes, caught between the earth which is moving in one direction and buildings moving in another, they will crack and catch fire. In any building which collapses or which is badly damaged, the combination of gas pipes and exposed electrical cables will cause fires to break out. Distrigaz Sud will shut off gas supply to the city, but as with Kobe, Japan, in 1995, where there were more than 300 fires, residual gas left in the system can fuel fires for up to three days. Some fires will combine to form bigger fires, their spread facilitated by the polystyrene cladding used to insulate many blocks, or by wooden attics. Water and electricity will cut off, making it difficult to put fires out: they will burn until they have nothing left to burn.
Fires could be prevented if each building was fitted with an independent system to automatically shut off the gas supply. A number of solutions are available: the Gas Stop system, which Distrigaz has been installing since 2012; a system of valves which automatically shut off when they receive an alert from the INFP (which Ionescu says has been presented to Distrigaz as a solution for individual buildings; Distrigaz says it is analysing the proposal); or, if anyone ever produces it, a seismic ventilator, a device which functions without any energy supply and which, placed on gas pipes, blocks them whenever seismic activity is felt. (There is a prototype, created by Professor Dan Rau, the former director of the Seismological Observatory in Timișoara. The cost of production is around €300).
If, on top of damaged buildings, blocked streets and fires, the Ciurel dam breaks, then 15 million metric cubes of water currently stored in Morii Lake will flood the Dambovita river over a length of around four and a half kilometres. Some scenarios go as far as to predict that the Eroilor area of Bucharest will be under 3.3 metres of water. The flood would dissipate in a few hours as the water escaped via the Dambovita, but the number of victims and level of damage it left in its wake is impossible to predict.
A few hours after the earthquake the Department for Emergencies will appeal for international assistance: more rescue teams, mobile hospitals, tents for the homeless, sleeping bags, electricity generators, medicine and blood. Planes with humanitarian assistance will arrive the next day.
If it is winter — and all the great earthquakes since 1800 have occurred during the colder months — the first night for hundreds of thousands of homeless people will be grim as they freeze in parks and public squares. Even those whose homes have not been damaged will be afraid of returning for fear of aftershocks. They will grab what they can — some a quilt, others a bottle of water, some a laptop. Few will be adequately dressed, with jackets and thick trousers, boots or Wellingtons, and fewer still will have a rucksack containing essentials.
There will be people who have made preparations. You will see them standing in Piata Victoriei, the Cervates statue in Piata Spania or in the middle of Piata Romana — stubbornly refusing to follow the directions of the authorities trying to get them to head for the Arena Nationala, Iulia Hasdeu College or Herastrau Park, where shelters will be organised — as they had already agreed on specific points to meet friends and family.
Mobile networks will not work all night as they will be over capacity. Only as morning falls, when many will begin to grab some sleep, will some people be able to hear familiar voices.
If it is summer, the first night will be easier. Worse will be the following days, under the burning sun, especially if dead bodies are left in the open or trapped under rubble. The smell and the risk of infection will cause people seek shelter in the less affected areas on the outskirts of the city.
Shelters and canteens will be set up for those left homeless in kindergartens, schools, student dormitories and hotels. Not everybody will know where to go, because information will be given out via loudspeakers, media and word of mouth. In a few places — Delfinului, Tineretului, Charles de Gaulle and Unirii — there will be evacuation points set up to get people out of the city to surrounding counties using army trucks. Councils in the towns around Bucharest will organise places to sleep, in schools, sports halls and cultural centres. No supplies for evacuees have been prepared, say the IGSU, although doing so has been a priority since the first SEISM exercises when the realised that they had brought hundreds of firefighters to Bucharest but had nowhere for them to sleep nor any food to give them. They say that for the time being there are no funds.
The search for survivors will continue. Their number will fall as time passes until, on the seventh day following the earthquake, nobody else will be found alive. At that point the rescue effort ceases.
The dead will be brought to the Mina Minovici morgue. After the 300 places are full they will be deposited elsewhere in the building. When even these auxiliary spaces have been filled military tents will be put up and the bodies stored in them, side by side, on pallets, as and when they are declared dead by the rescue teams — no vital signs, injuries incompatible with life — or when first aiders have tried resuscitation for more than half an hour but have failed, and when there is no more neurological activity.
Besides the 6,500 people who may die on impact, the INCERC scenario makes no effort to estimate the number of those who will die for lake of medical attention. Nor of pets abandoned after the death or departure of their owners, be they cats, dogs, tarantulas or cobras.
When Matei Sumbasacu, an engineer, asked a DSU representative how much construction equipment the emergency services had at their disposal to clean the streets after a major earthquake he got no answer. The DSU representative was under the bright lights of TV cameras, during a live debate called “Vulnerable Bucharest” organised by Seismic Alert, and had already given a number of far from satisfactory answers. When a reporter asked him if there are safe places in the city he did not know how to respond, and when another reporter asked him what people should do in case of an earthquake he said “to get out of their houses”. Exactly the opposite of what they should do. It was not Sumbasacu’s intention to catch him out, he simply wanted to know if the resources existed to clean the streets of rubble. A construction engineer with a masters degree in earthquake structural analysis, Sumbasacu, 28, recently founded an NGO, Re:Rise, because he wants to reduce the risk posed by earthquakes.
It all began in his own home, a block of 40 apartments built between the two world wars. In 2015, when he returned from a consultancy posting in Dubai, he wanted to find out what category of risk his building was in. He discovered that it was ridiculously classed as ‘risk level two to one’. As he puts it, buildings are not classed as being between two risk levels. The surveyor needed to decide if it was risk level two, or one. Then, being a building with commercial space on the ground floor and having more than four storeys it should be classified and declared a public hazard, which would make it eligible for public funds for consolidation. He did not manage to find out from the building’s administrator how the evaluation had been done, nor to convince his neighbours of the need to get a new one done. Far from it, they accused him of wanting to sell their apartments. Not being able to do anything about his own building, he began to look at what was happening with others.
Together with other specialists in construction, he set up Re:Rise in December 2016, which has already made a number of public statements. Re:Rise took part in a debate about a new consolidation law, held by the Ministry of Development in March, and proposed a number of measures. First off, Re:Rise wants the current risk level one list updated. According to their calculations, which takes into consideration the current state of a building and the number of earthquakes it has already endured, every single U1, U2 and U3 building should be risk level one: that’s 1600 buildings which would completely collapse during an earthquake of 7Mw.
They then proposed a system which would ensure that surveys were carried out objectively: an online platform to which surveyors could upload their work independently of property owners, who would no longer be able to pay for surveys. Experience has shown that property owners can influence surveyors and, if they do not like the results (which may not allow them to open businesses in their properties) they do not lodge it with the city council.
As well as participating in public debates, they want to create a database with all privately-held construction machinery which could be made available to help with the removal of rubble following an earthquake. Other ideas, inspired by best practice from other countries, include simple applications for people to confirm that they are alive, drones which can scan roads and inform the emergency services which routes are blocked, and fixed drones to serve as wireless routers. “The project closest to my heart is consolidation”, says Sumbasacu, “as I am an engineer. But before we get to that stage there are many other ways we can work to limit the number of deaths.”
The IGSU says that it already has a similar database of local resources which could be requisitioned if needed. Current legislation however only allows for requisitioning to be carried out by the military and by county governors, not by the emergency services. According to the existing procedures requisitioning is done at the behest of a committee of 12 representatives of administrative, military, budgetary, legal and commercial institutions. Given that the operations of many of these institutions will be gravely affected or even suspended because of human losses or destroyed offices, the requisitioning process will be rendered all but impossible.
To clear the eight million tons of rubble (the amount Professor Văcăreanu estimates) will take trucks than can support a maximum of 20 tons each time almost 400,000 loads. If 500 lorries were transporting rubble non-stop, at an average of four hours per load, it will take four and a half months to clear the city. This assumes that there will be people to load the trucks in the first place — Romania suspended conscription in 2007 and the size of the army has been reduced to 73,000 full-time soldiers and 45,000 reservists. At the SEISM 2016 exercise, the IGSU had just 47 lorries and pick-up trucks at its disposal, while Bucharest City Council needs to acquire land on which to deposit the debris (under EU law it cannot be thrown on rubbish tips).
In a city full of rubble, with no utilities, in the cold or in a heatwave, in a state of emergency, economic activity will come to a halt for some time. Production of goods and supply of services will stop for an indefinite period due to loss of life and damage to premises. Even in those places where work is possible, people, distressed by what they have been through, wracked with worry and lacking basic necessities will not be at their most efficient.
In 1977 Ceaușescu forced people back to work in factories whose walls, it was reported, were about to collapse at any moment. This time, safety will be paramount. The World Bank estimates that total losses in Bucharest — which includes everything, from the loss of life to destroyed buildings, from lost production to the cost of caring for survivors — will rise to above €10 billion, or seven per cent of Romania’s economy. Professor Văcăreanu, in his own estimates, sees €10 billion in property damage alone.
In order to switch the gas back on, all 2000 kilometres of pipes will need to be checked metre by metre, something which can be done only after the streets have been cleared of rubble and collapsed or condemned buildings have been cut off from the mains. Electricity and running water will be switched back on step by step, district by district, as the networks are repaired.
A year after the earthquake, the utilities will be back on, but on 70 per cent of the cities buildings will be inhabitable. Many of those left homeless will live in tents and containers in camps in parks and on the outskirts of the city. The city council can house just 300 people in the 84 socially-owned apartments it has set aside for emergencies. The chief architect of Bucharest’s Sector 3, Ștefan Dumitrașcu, says that there are over 10,000 vacant apartments in new private developments, but that no agreement has yet been reached that would allow the city council to house homeless people in them in case of earthquake.
No country on earth can respond flawlessly to a natural disaster. Even Japan has difficulties. But no intelligent country can rely solely on the emergency services to deal with such events. In the January 1995 Kobe earthquake (6.9Mw, at a depth of 18km, at 5:45 in the morning) losses were huge: 6,500 dead, 40,000 injured and around 300,000 left homeless. Three hundred fires burnt for three days and the docks in the city’s port fell into the ocean. Approximately 8,000 people were rescued from under the rubble by the emergency services, while a further 27,000 were dug out by family, friends, neighbours and volunteers. Those people who were safe helped. They knew that the authorities could not save everybody and did something about it.
During the earthquake of 2011, followed by a tsunami, it was the same: the most vulnerable people living on the coast were saved not by the emergency services but by neighbours who came into their houses, put them in cars and drove them to safety. Even in Japan this did not happen everywhere, but only in areas where the authorities had invested in solidarity: there were community centres, events where people got to know each other and did things together.
This gave people the opportunity find out who would need saving.
In Romania, the authorities would like people to be responsible — to consolidate their own homes and not to move into properties already declared high risk, to have furniture fixed to the walls, to keep a fire extinguisher at home, to have a plan for all the family, to prepare an emergency rucksack, not to phone 112 unless they have a real emergency, to donate blood, to take first aid courses. At the same time however, the state acts with a paternalism that does not leave much room for personal initiative, nor does it encourage communal solidarity.
Instead of offering viable ways of helping people finance consolidation, they are told to hand over the keys to their apartments and return in four years time, having paid a sum they will not know the total of until work has been done. Instead of repeated, unannounced simulations to train people to know exactly what to do in a real disaster, people are told they do not need to know where the earthquake-safe places are as all will be explained via loudspeakers after the earthquake has hit. Instead of declaring a National Disaster Awareness Day, to be marked each year (on the same date) by public events in order to make things sink in, they evoke the mysticism of the Middle Ages when it comes to anything regarding prevention. (In Romania, Prevention Day takes place on the first Tuesday the 13th of every year).
In the Seismic Alert report, the authors explain how “in Christian tradition, earthquakes are associated with the end of the world. Apocalyptic scenarios are a problem, because the transform earthquakes into a nightmare that nobody wants to think about.” Earthquake takes on a fictive form that does not concern us. Even the IGSU says that when it first run an earthquake awareness campaign in 2013, the first reactions it got were: “Why now? Do you know that something is going to happen but do not want to tell us?”.
And yet beyond attitudes are actions. Instead of facilitating communication and negotiation between neighbours, the consolidation law breeds division. The authorities are not to be trusted, they break their own laws, avoid difficult questions and ignore lessons of the recent past. Research amongst those who live in blocks with a red disk carried out by the anthropologist Gruia Bădescu demonstrates that the main reasons people choose to stay in them are that they have no faith in the surveyors who declared them unsafe, they do not trust the consolidation process and claim that the city council creates problems. People simply do not view the authorities as helpful.
Nor do we, ordinary people, take things as seriously as we should. We only need to look at how many pubs, restaurants and shops in buildings declared a public danger have reopened less than a year after the Colectiv fire to see that we live in a country in which laws are not made to be respected.
Italian earthquakes over the past 20 years have shown that in order to keep the death toll as low as possible one rescuer is needed for every three or four victims. Even in the best case scenario — help from around the country arrives in Bucharest without any problems (difficult to believe), there are no emergency situations in other parts of the country (unlikely), all firefighters have survived the earthquake and are not affected by the scale of the human disaster in front of them (impossible) — there are still fewer than 20,000 trained staff to take care of hundreds of thousands of victims and homeless people. If you are injured but are not in a serious condition, you will not receive any help, because there will be others whose needs are greater.
The main problem is that those responsible for reducing the risk believe that they have time. The city council believes that it has time to consolidate buildings when in fact, at the speed it is currently being done, it will take 175 years. Distrigaz believes it has time to manually turn off the gas. DSU believes it has time to stock up on emergency supplies. The IGSU believes that it has time to train enough volunteers to take the place of retiring firefighters. The Ministry of Development believes it has the timp to introduce new legislation that will speed up consolidation — a proposal was published in March but has yet to make it to parliament. Employers believe that they have time to practice fire and earthquake drills, but another day, when staff don’t have deadlines to meet. The owners of concert venues believe that they have time to evacuate people. Ordinary people believe that they have time to prepare a rucksack and make a plan for emergencies. An earthquake seems unlikely, something we just see on a black and white newsreel we watch on television every March 4th. But it is not unlikely. It could happen this summer, or in winter, ten years from now. But happen it will.
Meantime, some people have realised that everything cannot be left until tomorrow. Maybe it’s because they lost somebody in the unlikely fire of October 2015 and do not want to have to go through such things again, such as Seismic Alert. Maybe it’s because they can’t do anything about where they live but want to help those who can, such as Re:Rise. Maybe they have just realised that they have to drop the academic terminology and speak to people in language they can understand, such as the seismologists from INFP. They are all doing what the authorities who should be reducing risk are unable to do: bringing people to the same table, looking for solutions and trying to push things in the right direction. That is what we should all be doing. While there is still time.
Carla Lunguți contributed research to this article. If you would like to find out more about Bucharest’s next earthquake, write to Georgiana at firstname.lastname@example.org and she will point you towards some supplementary reading.
How to prepare for an earthquake
Most of these suggestions cost nothing. Those which do imply a cost can be bought over time, reducing the financial burden.
Before an earthquake:
Do not make any structural changes to the supporting walls of your home; do not install any heavy appliances (air conditioning, advertising hoardings) if they affect the structural resistance of the building.
Prepare an earthquake rucksack for your family.
Make a plan for the family: choose a safe public space an accessible distance from home, school, office and arrange to meet there if you are, or become, separated. Decide on a length of time that you should wait for each other.
Identify safe places in your home and at work: a sturdy table, a supporting girder, a door frame or a supporting wall.
Take a look in every room and try to imagine what would happen to the things in it during a major earthquake. Will anything fall on the bed? Will the wardrobe block the door? Is there a picture or mirror above the bed? Solve any problems: fix furniture to the walls or move it so that it will not present a danger. Move heavy things onto lower shelves, put no-slip discs under the television, computers and other electronics. Move beds away from windows. Always close wardrobe doors.
Ensure that you know where to turn off the water, electricity and gas supply.
Make sure your kids know how to phone 112 and what to say. Make sure they know how to take shelter during an earthquake if they are not with you, who to go to if an adult does not show up at your meeting place (you may not want to think about such things, but it could turn out that you do not survive).
Make sure your family know how to use apps that will allow them to tell each other where they are.
Carry a piece of paper with your name, blood type and contact person with you at all times. Do the same for the kids.
Do a first aid course once a year.
If you are on holiday, familiarise yourself with the hotel’s evacuation procedures and find a safe place in your room.
What to do during an earthquake
Wherever you may be, stay in the same place until the earthquake is over. Do not use stairs, take the lift or try to jump out a window. Do not go out onto a balcony, or come inside from outdoors. Even if you are afraid, keep calm.
If you are inside:
Take shelter under a table with solid legs, a supporting beam or a door frame.
If you have none of these things around you, crouch down next to a supporting wall.
Cover your head with something solid: a bag, book, even a laptop if that’s all you have.
Stay away from windows, glass doors, mirrors, bookcases, tall furniture and light fittings.
If you are in a wheelchair, put the brakes on and protect your head.
If you are in a shop, move away from heavy objects and follow the rules above. Do not try to leave until the earthquake is over.
If you are in a lift: press the emergency button, which will stop the lift, and get out as fast as possible.
Note: The Triangle of Life Theory, which turns up every now and then on television and Facebook, is not recommended by any of the emergency services, from GIES to the Red Cross. The idea is based on the fact that if you create a pyramid from furniture you will have a safe space around you. While this might be useful in buildings made of paper-thin walls, false ceilings and light furniture, it is no defence against concrete walls, heavy wardrobes and shelves packed with books or files. Follow the above advice.
If you are outside:
Take shelter away from windows, buildings, bridges, electric cables and pylons. Keep at least 10 metres away from fallen or torn electric cables.
If you cannot keep your balance, crouch down.
If you are in a vehicle:
Stop in a safe place without blocking the road, away from bridges, viaducts and buildings.
Do not get out of the car until the earthquake has ended. If cables have fallen around you, wait for the emergency services, do not go near them.
If you are in a public place: cinema, metro or such like: Find a safe place and follow instructions of staff. Do not try to exit during the earthquake.
After an earthquake:
Keep calm and help others to recover.
If somebody is hurt and you know what to do, give them first aid.
Check if your home has suffered damage. If you suspect a gas leak, open the windows and turn off all appliances. If the water is still on, fill the bath and every available recipient with water, in case it gets turned off.
If your home is not safe, check if you can leave the building. Dress appropriately for the weather, take your emergency rucksack and leave carefully, avoiding electrical cables and damaged stairs.
Do not use the telephone network to make calls as it will be over capacity. Instead, try to use data applications — chat, social networks — to communicate.
If you have been caught under rubble, try to make a noise by hitting something hard against a water pipe or something compact. Rescue workers can hear you through ten metres of rubble, and until they arrive neighbours may be able to hear and save you.
If you cannot leave your home (the stairs have completely given way, for example) put a sign in the window: HELP.
Listen to the radio and follow any instructions from the authorities.
Do not use your car unless you really have to — to get to hospital, for example. The roads must be kept free for the emergency services.
We asked various illustrators and visual artists to offer a visual interpretation to the vulnerability of the city. We received the following pieces: