Bucharest is the EU capital most at risk for earthquakes, many seismologists believe. And with hundreds of vulnerable old buildings suffering decades of neglect, many residents of the Romanian capital live in fear of losing their lives.
Violeta and Asaad Hussein have been trying to reinforce the building’s structure for 21 years. The works have started but have been left unfinished. Bad experiences accumulate.
“Once there was an earthquake a little bigger than the others,” says Violeta. “It was overnight. The owners of the apartments on the fifth and sixth floors of this building, and those of the surrounding buildings, ran down the stairs in their nightgowns and met in the street. This really … really happened to us. “
Local authorities distribute special earthquake survival kits, which contain water, whistles, bandages, masks and a radio.
Built in 1934, the building is among the most vulnerable in Bucharest. Situated on a fault, seismic experts consider the city to be the capital of the EU with the highest risk of earthquakes. If there were an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 or higher, these apartments would almost certainly collapse, experts have assessed.
Hundreds of similar high-risk buildings are scattered around the Romanian capital. The planning and development advisory NGO of urban geographer Bogdan Suditu Do better has developed an online city map with red dots that identify the most vulnerable sites.
Some are abandoned; others are inhabited. They are all extremely dangerous.
“This is the oldest building with a red dot,” says Bogdan, showing the map. “It dates from the end of the 19th century. It has been through many different earthquakes, in 1940 … 1977 … 1986 … 1990 … 1991 … and 1994 … “
Landlords and tenants feel increasingly unsafe
Of that list, the 1977 one still gives Bucharest the chills. It had a magnitude of 7.2. About 1,600 people died. Some 33,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged. Since then, very little complete structural consolidation work has been done.
“More than 8,000 people live in the 317 buildings that have been identified as high risk,” says Bogdan. “So if there were an earthquake similar to the one on March 4, 1977, the number of victims could be 8,000 and up.”
As time goes on, concerned landlords and tenants feel increasingly insecure and powerless. Consolidation costs could run into billions of euros that one of Europe’s poorest nations cannot afford. Lack of resources. Bureaucratic delays, political infighting, accusations of corruption and complex legal issues keep the situation stagnant.
“Right now we don’t have the technical solutions necessary to solve the problem,” says Bogdan. “Nor do we have the required legal solutions, or the money or the general will to promote the rescue of these buildings and the protection of their owners and tenants as a matter of public interest.”
The Ministry of Development rejected our request to discuss these claims.
At Bucharest City Council Edmond Niculusca, the newly appointed Director of High Risk Buildings Management, told us that they are actively discussing solutions with the government, the European Union and international banks. He says they just started 15 new consolidation projects.
“For the first time we began to discuss with the National Heritage Institute, with the Technical University, with the Order of Architects, with experts and professionals with whom we can work together on a strategy,” he says.
Modeling the aftermath
With no effective short-term solutions in sight, anxious eyes turn to the National Seismic Institute.
Here, experts monitor seismic activity with real-time data from eight local observatories across the country. No one can predict when Bucharest will hit the next big earthquake, director Constantin Ionescu tells us.
But they can model what the aftermath would look like.
“We have special software that evaluates a given earthquake,” he explains. “Each seismic station records the movement of the earthquake at that point; From this we can estimate the strength with which the earthquake was felt in a city. This rate of acceleration of the earth is transmitted to the base of the buildings. Through these earthquake parameters, we can know exactly what the effects are on particular buildings. “
Preparing for the worst
Aware of Bucharest’s vulnerability, firefighters, first responders and volunteers train to be prepared. An NGO trains 20 dogs to find survivors under the rubble. These dogs were in action after a recent earthquake in Albania and are available, should they be needed.
“The concern we have is whether our volunteers will be under the rubble themselves,” says Vlad Popescu, dog trainer at Clubul Caini Utilitari. “That is what worries us the most. Otherwise, it will be another day in the field for them. For us, as trainers, volunteers, manipulators, it would be a good challenge to stick together and be able to intervene. Because most of the things we see will be close to our hearts and we will be emotionally charged. But hopefully we can put into practice the training that we have carried out during all these years ”.
Another building in Bucharest shows that the worst case scenario is avoidable and that there are preventive solutions. Very damaged during the 1977 earthquake, it has been completely reinforced with concrete embedded in steel, both outside and inside the structure.
Each owner paid in proportion to the size of their apartment, with a bill of around € 500 per square meter. Cristina Iordache bought one of them, once the consolidation works were completed.
“Before buying the apartment, we did some tests,” he says. “We called in a construction engineer who came and saw everything. We asked the consolidation company how it was done. We ask to see the papers. And after that, we decided to buy. And yes, we feel safe. Since we’ve lived here, we’ve only experienced one earthquake. And it didn’t feel too bad. “
It is an example that, hopefully, will spread. Some experts estimate that more than a third of the 8.5 million homes in Romania are in a state of neglect.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism