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How can residents in Morocco guard against the next deadly earthquake?


Earthquakes are frightening. Anyone who's lived through one knows that. But do they have to be so devastating? We're wondering why this latest earthquake in Morocco was so deadly and if there's anything the people who live in that area can do to prevent this loss of life if this happens again. We called Mehrdad Sasani about this because he is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University, and he wrote a piece about this for a university publication. Good morning. Thank you for joining us.

MEHRDAD SASANI: Good morning. And thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: So professor, our reporter Lauren Frayer spoke with rescue crews in Morocco who had also helped in Turkey's earthquake earlier this year. And they told her that this operation has been much harder. Now, some of that is the terrain, of course. These are villages in the mountains. But you wrote that the construction methods were just no match for the earthquake. Why is that?

SASANI: So there are mainly two types of buildings that collapsed during the Morocco earthquake. One is mud brick or adobe construction. Mud bricks are bricks that are dried in the air. Adobes have excellent thermal properties and energy efficiency. That's why they use them. But traditional adobe construction performs poorly during earthquake. That is practically two important reasons for that. One, mud bricks are weak, brittle and heavy. And two, building as a whole is not well-integrated. As a result, they often collapse suddenly.

MARTIN: So they're going to have to rebuild after this, or one hopes that they will. I'm sure people want to. How should they go about it? And is there something that could be improved?

SASANI: Sure. I mean, one important thing in reconstruction is considering the culture and the tradition there. There are approaches that they can improve the adobe structures. The walls need to be well-integrated, and the material needs to have higher quality. The construction and layout of the buildings needs to be improved. If those things are done, these adobes can perform much better. So one maybe quick thing is they can put a beam, a wooden beam, on top of the walls that would integrate the walls and tie the walls to the roof.

MARTIN: Can they afford that, though?

SASANI: I would say that's reasonably affordable, yes. I mean, it's just a matter of educating a little bit as to improve construction. Use of wood would be - a good question, is timber available in the area or not? If it's not, it will be more challenging.

MARTIN: There are buildings in Marrakech that were also damaged. It's a significant cultural heritage site. Is there way to preserve that cultural heritage while incorporating better building techniques?

SASANI: There are a variety of way to rehabilitate buildings and all the constructions. And the short answer is yes. It really depends on what the structure of that building is, and what are the appropriate methods to rehabilitate them? There are approaches to maintain those older structures, yes.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, do you mind if I ask you, when you see something like this, when you see the destruction happening like a place like the villages that we've seen, in Marrakech, you know, both as an engineer, as a person that appreciates the architecture of these places, I just wonder what this brings up for you.

SASANI: I mean, first thing it brings up is the memory of the sites that I have visited. I was seeing this father - that his whole family were killed under the building. And he told me, you engineers killed him. This building came down like a piece on top of everybody. So we - not necessarily just engineers - society as a whole needs to really provide resources to those particularly rural areas to reduce, really, the likelihood of these types of outcomes.

MARTIN: That is Mehrdad Sasani. He's a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University. Professor Sasani, thank you so much for sharing these insights with us.

SASANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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