The University Record, February 20, 1995
By Julie Robinson
Record Special Writer
Jim Wight, professor of civil engineering, knows that lessons can be learned from everything--even earthquakes.
Wight was one of five American professors chosen by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to travel to Kobe, Japan, 10 days after the Jan. 17 earthquake. The earthquake measured 7.2 on the Richter scale, and was responsible for thousands of deaths. Destruction was widespread and Wight came away with many interesting observations on the structural damage that occurred in the area.
The trip was organized as part of an NSF "Learning From Earthquakes" program designed to enable U.S. scientists to investigate earthquake sites soon after the event. Wight has had the opportunity to learn from other quakes and was eager to make the trip.
"I was excited and apprehensive at the same time," he says, "I knew it would be difficult because of the amount of destruction. There was no heat or water. When we left we didn't even know where we would be staying."
All local hotel space was already being used in relief efforts, so the team stayed in nearby Osaka. Due to the road and railway damage, they had a three-hour commute each day. For five days they were allowed to explore the city and make observations. The sixth day was spent with other investigators at Kyoto University's Disaster Prevention Institute.
The team separated into two groups. One focused on bridges, Wight's on Kobe's buildings. They had a map of the city and "kind of made our own way around it, trying to hit different parts of the city in our five days," he says.
The team came away with new questions and an increased insight into what happens to the structures they design after such intense stress.
"The most interesting type of damage was in intermediate-height buildings when an upper story collapses. For example, in an 11-story building we would find that the seventh floor collapsed," he says. "There is usually a fair number of buildings with first-story collapses, as it is often open, like a shopfront where not as much structure is found.
"The modern buildings did very well. With respect to being able to put up new structures, the Japanese are in very good shape. There has been a real understanding since the 1980s and construction has greatly improved," he says.
As was found to be the case in last year's Los Angeles earthquake, many of the damaged highway systems and buildings were older ones.
One improvement Wight expects is in Japan's housing construction.
"Many homes have ornate tiles on the roofs bedded in a sandy clay layer. It is good insulation and probably keeps water out, but their timber construction is thinner, and it shakes too much. Consequently, a lot of people, if not killed, were trapped by the roofs and unable to escape. Wood houses are usually a safe place to be, but in Japan it was a different story.
"I hope houses will be better made. In the same district, newer homes had shingles and looked to be just fine. The earthquake may make a big difference in housing construction."
The research team plans to publish its observations in a future NSF publication that is widely distributed to researchers and structural engineers.
The focus of the NSF program is to increase cooperative learning and to have the selected investigators be the eyes and ears for others uncovering a vital facet for the advancement of earthquake-safe structures.
"The hope for NSF is that critical information is brought back. The news brings back the human tragedy and not the engineering details or facts," Wight says.
However, the human plight was not forgotten, particularly in one instance.
"As we walked up a hill, an older Japanese fellow moving things from one house to another looked over the hill and said it was 'just like after the war.' He was happy we were there, probably thinking we would be able to help so that next time it wouldn't be so bad. Hopefully that will be true."