Chile's earthquake teaches California some lessons

The Sacramento BeeMarch 2, 2010 

The massive earthquake that struck Chile on Saturday provides a good look at how California might fare after a large temblor, experts said Monday.

Chile and California are both leaders in seismic safety engineering due to the frequency of large quakes in both places. Their strengths lie in different areas, however, so their structural engineers have been able to learn new things from each other.

The 8.8-magnitude quake near Concepción, though 500 times more powerful than the January quake in Haiti, caused comparatively less damage and tens of thousands fewer deaths. The reason is that Chile has advanced building codes, many developed in consultation with California, said Jose Restrepo, a professor of structural engineering at the University of California, San Diego.

Chile has been diligent in upgrading its large government and residential buildings, and few were damaged.

"In spite of all that we see on the news, Chileans have fared fairly well because they have taken these things very seriously," said Restrepo, an adviser to the Chilean government on its seismic building codes. "There is a lot of devastation and damage, but it could have been much worse."

Chile's standards for strengthening old bridges and building new ones, however, have not been adequate, he said, and many bridges collapsed in Saturday's quake.

"They could copy some of the very good procedures we have from Caltrans," he said.

Nearly all of California's major highway bridges have been upgraded to withstand earthquakes.

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