Deadly Tremor in Iran
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, more on the devastating earthquake in Iran. Jeffrey Brown has that.
JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me is Farzad Naiem, an earthquake engineer and vice president at John A. Martin and associates in Los Angeles. He was born in Iran.
Mr. Naiem, could you give us some background on this area? Why is it so prone to large earthquakes?
FARZAD NAIEM: Iran is known for big earthquakes for a long time. The country is located at the intersection of at least three tectonic plates, plates that rub against each other and cause earthquakes. Arabian Plate is one, the Indian Plate is the other, and the Asian Plate is a third one, and these plates push and shove against each other, and the area where Iran is located on is under constant deformation, and we have a lot of big mountain ranges there that are caused by these deformations, and a lot of earthquakes over many, many years. So earthquake is not news to Iran. It has been there for centuries.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, estimates of the death total vary widely at this point, but it is clearly very high. Is this a case where building construction plays a big part?
FARZAD NAIEM: Absolutely. The construction quality in Iran, particularly in rural areas and villages, are poor. They have been poor for many, many years, and they continue to be poor. To give you a point of comparison, in California, which basically has the same type of seismicity as we have in Iran, over the 20th century a total number of about 1,600 people have died because of earthquakes. In Iran, that number over the 20th century is more than 126,000, and I don’t think anything else but the quality of construction is the reason for the difference.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, given that the area is so prone to earthquakes, are there codes in place, and if so, why are they not upheld?
FARZAD NAIEM: Well, there are codes in place, but, you know, codes are a very small part of a very big story. Number one, codes generally protect buildings or are enforced on new buildings, buildings that you’ve built, and then you have a new code, and people have to build according to those codes. We are talking about a country which has a history of over 2,000 years. There are buildings that have been in place and people are living in, people have tradition of making their own houses for over the ages, and these buildings are there, and they are not affected by the codes.
Number two, even the countries that have codes, like United States, most of the residential … I mean, many if not most of residential buildings are considered non-engineered buildings that do not really fall under the provisions of the codes.
The third is, having codes is one thing; enforcing them is another. And in Iran, particularly in the small cities and rural villages, hardly ever any code is enforced. So having the code in the books doesn’t help a lot.
JEFFREY BROWN: Can you tell us briefly a little bit about the city of Bam? It’s described as a major … containing a major historical site.
FARZAD NAIEM: That’s correct. Bam is a jewel of a city. It is located in the desert. As a matter of fact, it is surrounded by the desert. It was a city which was on the route of the old silk route from China, and this city, which is surrounded by the desert is rather green, and it has been described as the emerald of the desert because of the ample water that it’s historically had, the palm trees they’ve had, and the vegetation that it has.
Within the city, in the old quarters of the city, there is a fortress that is built with mud brick, or adobe, and it is probably the most ancient adobe brick structure in existence. It is about 2,000 years old, and it is rather tall. It’s about five stories tall in parts, and it is a real historic site, and as I hear — and I hope what I hear is not correct — most of it is severely damaged or destroyed during this earthquake. So practically this earthquake was not only a human catastrophe, it was also a cultural catastrophe for Iran and the world.
JEFFREY BROWN: Farzad Naiem, thank you very much for joining us.
FARZAD NAIEM: Thank you.