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Engineer says modern building design would have saved lives in Turkey’s earthquake

The February earthquake in Turkey and Syria was an enormous natural disaster, causing nearly 60,000 confirmed deaths in both countries, though most of them in Turkey. The magnitude of the Turkey quake was roughly the same as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The fault rupture covered 220 miles of Turkish countryside.

The length of the rupture of that 7.8 earthquake was the same as the distance from San Diego all the way to Santa Barbara,” said Robert Dowell, a structural engineering professor at San Diego State University.


Dowell was part of a reconnaissance team of engineers, who arrived about two weeks after the massive quake to report on the damage to structures. The team was based in Adana, in southern Turkey, not far from the epicenter.

Dowell saw buildings that collapsed, were reduced to their steel columns and girders and some that toppled like felled trees. He said the devastation in Turkey could have been prevented with modern earthquake design.

“If you took all of the tens of thousands of buildings that collapsed in Turkey and put them on base isolation before the earthquake, not one of them would have collapsed,” he said.

Charlotte Radulovich
Engineering professor Robert Dowell speaks in San Diego State University's Structural Engineering Laboratory. May 12, 2023

Base isolation design means the foot of the building is not fastened to the ground. That lets the building either slide as the ground moves beneath it or rock slightly but maintain its integrity.


Dowell, a one-time bridge design engineer with Caltrans, said bridges can have base isolation also, where the top of the bridge shifts as the lower structure moves with the earth.

Caltrans said San Diego's Coronado Bridge is the only local bridge with base isolation, which was added during the bridge's 1999 seismic retrofit.

But Dowell said the latest earthquake design is expensive and Turkey is not a rich country. Dowell says Turkish colleagues pointed out to him that poor funding and official corruption often result in the use of bad building materials and poor engineering.

“There are these materials, weak materials. Concrete with one fifth the compression strength that it should have. Rebar that sometimes is deformed and details of reinforcement that aren’t closely spaced as they should be,” he said.

Though Downey was not there for the original earthquake, he did feel the temblor’s biggest aftershock, following his first day in the field. He and his engineering team were eating out to a well-known kebab restaurant in Adana when the aftershock struck.

“We had some appetizers and my first kebab in Turkey was placed in front of me. Just then, before my first bite, the building starts swaying. It was a magnitude 6.4 earthquake aftershock,” he said, adding that the waiters and other staff looked terrified after what they witnessed two weeks before.

Everyone fled the building, though Dowell did later return to finish his kebab.

Dowell said one bit of good news from the earthquake. With all the devastation to buildings in Turkey, many bridges were also damaged but not one of them collapsed.