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Tehran Residents Quake at Idea of Big Temblor

Seismology: Although the capital has not been the site of a major temblor, many believe that devastation would be extensive if one hits.


TEHRAN — The most recent earthquake to hit quake-prone Iran shook five provinces, flattened villages, killed 245 people -- and left residents of Iran's capital and population center wondering fearfully what would happen if Tehran were next.

In the days after the magnitude 6 quake hit last month southwest of Tehran, newspapers in this city of 10 million sounded the alarm, saying the officials responsible for emergency response had done next to nothing to prepare for a major quake -- which the city has never suffered.

"The condition of our emergency response facilities and infrastructures such as hospitals, police and firefighting stations, as well as utilities like the natural gas networks and the main electricity grid, are so unsound that experts predict they will be among some of the first structures to be destroyed," the English-language daily Iran News warned.

Next came criticism from the Tehran City Council, whose members seize any chance to pick on the bureaucracy that runs the capital.

The council adopted a plan by member Ebrahim Asgharzadeh to respond to what he called official lapses. He proposed identifying buildings too weak to withstand a major quake and strengthening them, enhancing building inspections and improving construction standards. Although the plan was approved in principle, details on how it will be implemented have yet to be worked out.

Asgharzadeh says that Tehran's building industry was "corrupt" and that municipal authorities would have to take more responsibility over "supervision of building construction" to prevent the use of shoddy materials that save contractors money.

New regulations, especially with no clear plan for implementing them, may not be the answer. Since 1986, buildings in Tehran have had to be engineered to resist quakes of up to magnitude 7, the point at which a temblor is considered capable of widespread, heavy damage.

Experts say there is reason to be concerned.

"Our scientific data suggest that the earthquake faults in Tehran are very active and moving," said Nasrollah Kamalian, the head of Tehran University's Geophysics Institute. "There is a 95% possibility of a magnitude 6 or more devastating quake in Tehran, but the timing cannot be predicted."

Seismologist Muhammad Mokhtari said that Tehran has grown in recent decades and that some new neighborhoods are atop fault lines.

He said a quake in Tehran, in the Alborz mountain range, could kill about a million people within a few minutes. Extensive fires sparked by explosion of gas pipes and flooding due to broken water pipes would add to the devastation, the seismologist said.

In June 1990, a quake measuring between magnitude 7.3 and 7.7 destroyed Roudbar and other smaller towns in northern Iran, killing 45,000 people and leaving 10 times as many homeless. In May 1997, a magnitude 7.1 quake killed 1,500 people, again in the country's north. Both quakes hit about 125 miles from Tehran, where they were felt but caused no damage.

"On the average, Iran has seen a devastating quake once every decade," Kamalian said. "The time is ripe for another disaster now after the 1990 quake." Mohsen Ghafouri Ashtiyani, head of the International Seismology Institute in Tehran, said the effects of a quake would be compounded by the poor construction.

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