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Learning From Iran Quake

L.A. engineers of Iranian descent who traveled to Bam after the deadly Dec. 26 temblor reveal their findings at Caltech.

March 01, 2004|Kenneth Reich | Times Staff Writer

When officials at the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute began organizing a scientific team to travel to Iran to study the deadly Bam earthquake, they didn't have to look farther than the Los Angeles area.

Los Angeles and other parts of California have a sizable number of earthquake engineers and emergency experts of Iranian descent, and, within a few days, eight of them, using funds supplied by the National Science Foundation, were off.

They spent several days in Bam and returned with a full photographic and graphic report on the quake.

"We contacted Farzad Naeim, a leading structural engineer at John A. Martin and Associates in Los Angeles," said Susan Tubbesing, executive director of the institute, "and not only was he enthusiastic about the trip, he agreed to lead the delegation himself."

The group has presented reports on the Bam quake in San Francisco and at Caltech and will report March 8 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. It also has been invited to speak in Vancouver, Canada.

The group's three-hour presentation Wednesday at Caltech was an account of the Dec. 26 quake that took 43,000 lives, complete with photographs, statistical graphs and inside information on quake issues gathered.

The scientists said they received the full cooperation of Iranian officials and residents of Bam. Their Persian-language skills helped them to communicate there.

One of the most dramatic accounts came from Hassan Movahedi, usually with the Southern California Kaiser Permanente Medical Group, who related how the hospitals in Bam had coped with thousands of the injured.

A four-minute film taken at one hospital and presented by Movahedi showed huge numbers of people swarming through a hospital's halls and many people having to be treated on the floors because there weren't enough beds available.

Five surgeons had to perform 80 brain operations in a single day during the hospital's ordeal, Movahedi said.

The members of the traveling party, most of whom came to the U.S. shortly before or during the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power, have often been home to Iran to see family and friends. But never before had they been any more warmly welcomed than they were in Bam, Naeim said.

The quake there was a magnitude 6.6, compared with a 6.5 for the recent San Simeon quake, he said, but the Iran temblor was centered in an urban area and one largely built with adobe, a substance that fares very poorly in earthquakes but often dominates Third World construction.

"Adobe is a worldwide problem," said Naeim, who also showed photographs of a few newer buildings, not adobe, that survived the quake undamaged.

In Iran, as elsewhere, there are building codes, he said, "but the problem is not the codes, it's how you enforce them. And what about the older buildings?

The group said thousands of people have poured into Bam from rural areas, without means of support, compounding the problems of caring for thousands of orphans and widows.

The disrupted water system, with 80% of pipes broken in an extremely arid area, and disruption of other lifelines have added to the immense loss, said Elahe Enssani, a professor at San Francisco State.

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