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Pakistanis Try to Deal With Aftershocks

Many quake survivors have fled to Islamabad, where they feel daily tremors. Officials fear the capital is on the same fault line and is not safe.

October 23, 2005|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — For survivors of the earthquake-ravaged north squatting in an unfinished government apartment complex here, the terror that struck Oct. 8 replays itself dozens of times each day in their new surroundings.

More than 800 aftershocks have rocked Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and nearby Rawalpindi since the magnitude 7.6 temblor estimated to have killed nearly 80,000 and rendered 3 million homeless.

"I sleep outside at night," Sitara Jabin, 60, says, because of the aftershocks that send the rest of the newly arrived fleeing the nearly completed four-story brick and cinderblock structure.

The quake has shaken more than the immediate environs of its epicenter near Muzaffarabad, where many of the town's 600,000 people are now among the nomadic homeless.

Before Oct. 8, Islamabad and Rawalpindi were not regarded as high-risk areas for seismic events, but they are now believed to lie along a fault line that had not been identified as active. More than four million people live in the two cities.

"We knew the boundaries of the tectonic plates but because there was no history of such seismic activity in this area, it wasn't rated as high risk," Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, head of the Defense Ministry's Meteorological Department, said of the 80-mile stretch between the capital and the hardest-hit areas to the north.

The department's seismologists have embarked on an urgent remapping of the country's seismic zones, he said. Muzaffarabad is to be reclassified as a high-risk area, and possibly Islamabad as well.

"Islamabad will be more vulnerable than previously thought," Chaudhry said. A $3-million remapping project was undertaken after last December's Asian tsunami, and if the capital is redefined as a Category I, or very high hazard area, "there will be very major consequences" for future development, he said.

Civil engineers and city planners are already revising building standards. New structures will have to be able to withstand at least a magnitude 8 quake and existing high-rises must be retrofitted, said Kamran Lashari, director of the Capital Development Authority, the government agency that oversees construction in Islamabad.

"We are now very rudely shaken to this new reality and are taking a new look at our entire building methodology," Lashari said. "People here are now questioning the very existence of high-rise buildings."

One 10-story building in the 148-unit Margalla Towers complex collapsed in the quake, undermining confidence in the structural integrity of the capital's apartment blocks and government structures. At least 74 people died and 88 were injured.

Lawyers for the occupants contend that the builders used substandard materials and made gross deviations from approved construction plans.

Other structures in Islamabad, including the Parliamentary Lodges that house legislators, also suffered severe damage that compelled residents to evacuate. The Capital Development Authority has received more than 250 urgent requests for structural inspection, Lashari said.

Amid concerns about Islamabad's seismic vulnerability, authorities have decided not to permanently accommodate some of those displaced from the north. Tens of thousands have flocked to Islamabad and Rawalpindi to seek shelter with family or to be closer to the front of the aid pipeline. Tent cities have sprouted on government land, as well as in parks, sports fields and parking lots.

"It cannot be said that it is safe here either," said Sardar Mahmood, head of the volunteer Bali Foundation caring for 350 patients at a makeshift hospital at the Jinnah Stadium. "Everyone discharged from here is given a tent, blankets, food and clothing and sent back north."

Many who fled the quake ruins say they want to return to their northern towns and villages if they are provided adequate shelter to survive the approaching Himalayan winter.

"We don't feel safe here. We run out when there are aftershocks," said Khurshad Gilani, who along with 17 other extended family members on Wednesday broke into a ground-floor apartment of the unfinished G-6 government housing complex.

"There's no electricity. No water. We want to go back [to Muzaffarabad] as soon as we can get a roof over our heads."

Relief agencies' efforts to house quake survivors in their own environs have been hampered by a shortage of winterized tents.

Gilani expects to spend the winter here but hopes to return north in the spring and begin rebuilding his shattered home.

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