IMEG engineer on visit to Turkey: ‘It was humbling and eye-opening’ 

Parth Gudhka, an IMEG Project Engineer who holds a Master of Science degree from UCLA focused in structural/earthquake engineering, spent six days in late March in southern Turkey, where two large earthquakes struck the area and neighboring Syria. Parth traveled with members of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) as part of the organization’s Learning from Earthquakes program. He talks about the experience in the following Q&A.  

Q: What type of work did you do in Turkey, and how did you get involved? 

A: We were in the field for six days, staying in Adana and Gaziantep and going around looking at the affected areas. My focus as a part of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) team was to look at buildings. We were able to take a closer look at approximately 150 buildings with varying levels of damage in 13 affected towns and cities. The government estimates 60,000 buildings collapsed and another 100,000 are heavily damaged. There were other teams that looked at hospitals, lifelines (infrastructure), and a team of geotechnical researchers. 

At least 50 percent of heavily damaged buildings were still standing, not yet demolished. We worked with local professors, who helped us identify the buildings suitable for structural investigation and navigate the affected areas safely. We made observations from outside and would sometimes enter the buildings if it was safe to get inside. Our primary goal was to collect data on the damage sustained by buildings by identifying the failure modes and investigating construction quality and practices to study the performance of buildings during the earthquakes. 

Our observations are part of a comprehensive reconnaissance report released in May, and will be followed by a research paper later in the year, that will help guide ongoing research, design, construction, and inspection efforts across the industry in the future.  

I wanted to give back to the community professionally, and to help. This seemed like a great opportunity, and I didn’t think twice.  

Q: Why is structural reconnaissance important after an earthquake?  

Post earthquake reconnaissance of buildings is necessary to assess the safety and structural integrity of the buildings affected by the earthquake and to gather data on the damage sustained by buildings, which is essential for understanding the performance of buildings. 

By conducting a reconnaissance, engineers and other experts can identify the causes of damage and failure of buildings, assess the risk of further damage or collapse, and prioritize emergency response efforts. The information gathered during the reconnaissance helps with the ongoing research and identifies areas in the building design codes and construction methods that need to be improved to better resist earthquakes. 

Q: Why did some buildings fare better than others?  

A: Most of the damage was due to poor construction practices and poor engineering practices. 

The performance of buildings can depend on a variety of factors such as their age, construction materials and practices and site-specific geological conditions like proximity to the epicenter, intensity and duration of ground shaking, to name a few. Towns closer to the epicenter had suffered heavy damage compared to the areas further away. 

In California and other areas in the U.S., some buildings, like schools and government buildings, are designed for higher seismic forces. They have a special importance factor that increases the forces we design those buildings for, so the building is much more capable of resisting the earth in a better way. The Eurocode does that for Europe. The Turkey Building Earthquake Code was adopted in 2018, making it consistent with world-wide seismic standards. When we observed the newly constructed government buildings and school buildings, we could see they had fared better than the other similar residential and commercial buildings. 

But many new buildings — built per the newer building codes with seismic provisions, which should have fared better — had collapsed.  

Q: What did you take away from the trip on a professional level?  

Per current code standards, collapse prevention is the minimum required building performance for code compliance. However, if a design magnitude earthquake is experienced, there is a strong chance the building will suffer heavy damage and may be rendered non-usable/occupiable. But per the code, the design and the building have done their job of collapse prevention. In the event of a huge earthquake like this one, that will result in demolishing a lot of infrastructure and the need for a lot of concrete for the rebuilding process, which is not a very eco-friendly material. 

As mentioned earlier, per our observations, the buildings designed for higher performance, including the importance factors, like school, healthcare and essential facilities, performed well with limited and repairable structural damage. So, educating the developers and clients about the benefits of a better performance of buildings could help limit the damage suffered in an extreme event. 

Another thing I took away was how important it is to review the shop drawings thoroughly — it is the final chance to review that the structure is being built to the design intent. The design engineer should look at the complex areas to make sure those shop drawings reflect the design intent. We saw what it was like when that didn’t happen, and it’s not good. 

Q: On a personal level, how did the experience of seeing the devastation in person affect you? 

A: It was not easy at all. It was a very humbling and eye-opening experience to witness firsthand what a devastating earthquake can do. It’s what we do on a day-to-day basis — build structures that are supposed to resist earthquakes. I’m designing structures for people and living entities and if something goes wrong, it’s life at risk. Unfortunately, those lessons were learned the hard way in Turkey. 

It was very inspiring to see the way people were dealing with the catastrophe and their desire to help those affected by the earthquakes.  

This experience has strengthened my commitment to my profession and has highlighted the importance of the same and the critical role we play in keeping our communities safe.