Simulated Earthquakes at UNR Making Us Safer From The Real Thing

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Scientists say we've learned a lot about making the structures of our buildings safer in earthquakes, but that's not where much of the damage takes place.

It's the interior and what it contains that holds much of its value and all of its function.

It makes little difference if the walls and roof are standing, if the hospital or airport's equipment is out of commission.

"Imagine a hospital and after an earthquake," says Manos Maragakis, the Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Nevada Reno. "It's structurally sound, but you go inside the hospital and you see broken pipes, fallen tiles, broken windows, non-functioning equipment. It can't operate."

But scientists at UNR are using a two story building inside the Large Scale Structures Lab is helping us learn how to make the non-structural elements of a building survive a big quake.

A test done Tuesday showed what it would be like inside a high rise building in an 8 point 0 Richter scale temblor.

The whole structure shook and shuddered. Cameras placed inside showed ceiling tiles falling, office furniture swaying and falling. One could easily imagine what it would be like for someone caught there during an earthquake.

"You can have lots of injuries from non structural elements," says Maragakis. "Imagine sitting at your desk during an earthquake and the ceiling falls on you or a book case falls on you. This is something that we overlook many times.

Even setting aside the personal danger there's the impact on the economy and the stricken area's ability to respond to the quake itself.

"In a seismic region like Nevada, this is very important" he says. Keep in mind a sound infrastructure, the ability of a region, a city, an area to respond quickly and efficiently to a natural disaster is very important."

Months of preparation go into a test like this and it's all over in about 10- seconds, but what will be learned in examining the damage when the next big one hits.