Seismic engineer warns major quake will topple Portugal’s buildings like “decks of cards”

Yet another warning about Portugal’s lack of preparedness in the event of a strong earthquake – along the lines of the massive quake of 1755 – has been sounded this week by a seismic engineer who claims to have spent 14 fruitless years trying to force through laws to tighten up on building regulations.

In a chilling interview with RTP, Mário Lopes said he has now given up trying to change the terrifying status quo, and is instead aiming to forge change through education.

Affirming that successive governments know only too well how many people will die as a result of policies that have consistently put real estate ahead of human lives , Lopes is now the coordinator of an EU-backed project entitled KnowRisk, which is using two schools to test its communications strategies.

KnowRisk is designed to make children and adults aware of “non-structural” seismic risks – given that the structural ones are now such a ‘given’ that there is nothing that can be done to change them.

The project, which involves Italian and Icelandic partners, “is a long one”, explains sociologist Delta Sousa e Silva, “made up of retreats and advances”.

Information can be passed via awareness campaigns, or in the “more brutal manner of experience of a disaster”.

The nuts and bolts of the initiative is to try and “wake people up” to the risks they run everyday, and how these can be reduced with often very simple changes.

To inject a bit of urgency into the scenario, RTP held an in-depth interview with Mário Lopes who said that city centres – particularly Lisbon’s – have been superficially ‘gentrified’ so that it would not even take a quake of the same intensity as that which levelled the country 262 years ago for buildings to collapse.

Experts have been warning of the problems for years, Lopes told RTP, but governments are not interested as the issue is not sufficiently ‘vote catching’.

“They listen to us, tell us we’re right, and then throw our proposals (for change) into the wastepaper basket”, he said.

KnowRisk therefore is up against huge challenges. As architect Marta Vicente explained, the children currently being used as ‘guinea pigs’ in the initiative are asked to furnish a room, and then study the consequences of their floor plan in the event of an earthquake. “Which shelf fell and blocked a door? Which wardrobe collapsed on top of the bed? They can see what happens and then reorganise the space in a safer way, complementing the new organisation with other measures of protection”, she said.

The idea, of course, is that in learning what KnowRisk has to tell them, children then impart this knowledge to their parents.

Will it work? For the time being, KnowRisk is still ‘in training’ at two Lisbon schools, and the pupils are due to respond to an inquiry in a few months time. Only then will we discover whether the format is considered useful enough to take to the wider scholastic community.

In the meantime, the nation’s risks continue, with “a few small exceptions”, Mário Lopes explained.
“The republican assembly was reinforced because MPs were told that the wall of the parliamentary hall would fall on top of them (in the event of a strong quake). They improved its reinforcement with urgency”, he told RTP. “But they forgot there are more than 10 million Portuguese on the outside…”

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