The runway of Dhaka’s international airport was torn asunder along the axis. The damage forced all international flights — carrying emergency medical supplies, food, temporary shelters, and heavy-duty rescue machines — to divert to Chittagong and Sylhet. Large cargo helicopters like Chinook then airlifted emergency aid to makeshift sites in and around Dhaka. Local and international aid workers laboured round the clock to bring help to as many Dhakaites as possible. But time was running out, as over 2 million people desperately waited for urgent medical care all across the city.
A temporary shelter was created along the entire length of Manik Mia Avenue, where nearly 400,000 people huddled under tarpaulin tents. Yards away from there, a forlorn official at an emergency kiosk in front of the collapsed Aarong building intently listened to a radio. A sombre voice on BBC spoke: “Two days ago the Bangladesh capital Dhaka and its surrounding areas were hit by a seismic Armageddon of magnitude 8.2 on the Madhupur fault. The devastation is incalculable.”
CNN reporter Jordan Fitzgerald, along with his local journalist colleague, Raihan Adil, scoured the city by foot, bicycle, and motorbike for a glimpse into what was one of the most devastating earthquakes in modern history. The capital city bore the brunt of nature’s unimaginable fury.
There were collapsed buildings everywhere, debris-strewn and split city arteries, and decomposing human bodies, making the city un-navigable. Shell-shocked homeless people squatted on the streets, wailing and crying out for help. But there was also silence, unusual for a city teeming with 22 million people barely three days ago. Dhaka’s perennial traffic congestion was now replaced by empty faces and tears. The quiet of the city was occasionally perturbed by the shrill siren of ambulances and the thudding noise of drilling machines, trying to reach the dark womb of flattened buildings in search of survivors.
Raihan Adil and Jordan Fitzgerald furiously pedalled their bicycles on their way to old Dhaka, one of the gruesome epicentres of the wreckage. It has been reported that almost 80% of old Dhaka’s buildings have been levelled. Worse still, the old city’s narrow, crooked streets remained mostly inaccessible to any rescue efforts, and injured people perished without any medical help. Old Dhaka’s air was thick with dust and smell of the dead. The hustle and bustle of Shakhari Bazar seemed like a fragile page in an old history book.
Still numb from the jolt 48 hours ago, Raihan dolefully asked his CNN colleague, “Jordan, do you have the latest number of people killed?”
“Well, I only have an unofficial CNN estimate. Approximately 570,000 people have been reported dead or missing so far. Do you know that this is more than the combined human casualty in the two deadliest modern-era earthquakes? The 7.5 quake near Beijing in 1976 killed 240,000. The one in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2010, had a lower magnitude of 7.0, but it took the lives of about 316,000 people.”
Raihan looked aghast, “How many buildings have been flattened in Dhaka? Any satellite analysis?”
Jordan struggled to manoeuvre his bike through the debris on Mirpur Road near Nilkhet, not far from where Balaka Cinema Hall used to be. There were about a dozen dead bodies sticking out from underneath the collapsed footbridge that once connected Gausia and New Market. As he prepared himself to see more gory scenes like these, Jordan said, “It is still tentative. BBC reported that nearly 260,000 buildings have collapsed. But I suspect it would be more.”
Raihan whispered with a sigh, “I am shocked beyond belief. These numbers are way more than what a 2009 Bangladesh Government report estimated. It suggested that if a 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit Dhaka it would kill about 130,000 people and level 72,000 buildings.”
“Well, you can never predict things accurately about earthquakes because they are Mother Nature’s sheer eccentricities!”
Raihans agreed, “That’s true. But I keep thinking about the 1897 Great Assam Earthquake, eight years before the Bengal Partition that put East Bengal and Assam together. That quake had a higher magnitude of 8.7, but it claimed only 1626 lives.”
“Well, you are talking about a region more than a century earlier. But it is a radically different scenario now. There has been a manifold population increase. Built-up areas spread like an octopus. The rapid urbanization of mostly agrarian societies resulted in poorly planned cities, crammed with people and shoddy buildings.”
“Yes, you are right. It is now a totally different urban geography. In 1900, Dhaka’s population was only a little over 100,000. In 1961, it was around 500,000. Even when the country became independent, Dhaka was a city still with a rural flavour, marked by a sparse population. But within three decades or so the city became a megalopolis, competing with Tokyo, Mexico City, Mumbai, and Karachi! The city’s monstrous urban spine from Maowa in the south and Gazipur in the north is all but snapped now. I can’t believe that Dhaka’s streets don’t have traffic anymore. It is now an awfully quiet, ghost city. It’s worse than a nightmare…But, you know, I saw it all coming…”
Surprised, Jordan asked “How? What do you mean?”
“The city grew too fast too soon and, sadly, there has been very little planning for the seismic menace in Bangladesh. True, earthquakes are one of nature’s compositional irrationalities, inexplicably embedded in the DNA of the planet. You can’t prevent them, but you can surely prepare well to minimize their effects. There was very little effort to shore up critical facilities like hospitals, schools, and airports. There were no concerted national initiatives for the capacity building of earthquake professionals.”
Jordan agreed and said, “Yes, you are totally right about pre-planning for earthquakes. Do you remember two recent quakes and their very different results? The most powerful magnitude ever recorded on Earth was 9.5 in the Great Chilean Earthquake in 1960, with its epicentre being 350 miles south of Santiago. Approximately 6000 people were killed in that quake. But Chile learned a valuable lesson from the jolt. It developed appropriate seismic design codes for new buildings. These codes allowed buildings to endure strong vibrations later on.”
As he pointed to collapsed buildings along Nazimuddin Road in old Dhaka, Raihan asked, “Then what happened?”
“Well, there was another strong 8.8 quake in Chile 50 years later, in February 2010. The death toll was only 550. But then compare this earthquake in Chile with a weaker one that devastated Haiti a month earlier, in January of 2010. The Haiti quake’s magnitude was 7.0, but it reportedly killed 316,000 people. Why such a discrepancy? Of course, the difference is partly due to the differing distance between the epicentre of two earthquakes and human settlements. But the experts also think that Chile’s planning and capacity building for seismic mitigation since 1960 made a huge difference.”
“So, the Chileans were better prepared?”
“Yes, on many fronts. Think about this. A building stands up because it has a concrete cage of vertical columns and horizontal beams, all strengthened by steel reinforcements. When there is a strong geologic vibration, the structural members of the cage tend to buckle and collapse. To gird against this seismic threat, the Chileans systematically followed what is known as the “strong columns weak beams” system.
“What is this system?”
“When an earthquake strikes, according to this system the concrete on the beams should break near the end, dissipating a lot of energy of the quake. But because there is steel reinforcement in the beams, they ultimately survive and columns remain standing up. There may be a bit of damage here and there in the structure, but the building would not collapse to the ground. As for Haiti, the country has a much poorer economy, and the buildings there are built with little regulation, let alone seismic considerations. The stark difference between the devastations of the Chilean and Haitian earthquake in 2010 offers an invaluable lesson.”
Raihan nodded approvingly, “See, there have been frequent minor tremors in Bangladesh during the past 10 years. The government has been strengthening building codes based on a revised seismic map. Its disaster management agency was even training nearly 75,000 volunteers in earthquake response. There were indeed some efforts.”
As they turned a corner in Armanitola, Jordan asked impatiently, “So what happened? Why this massive destruction in Dhaka?”
“I suspect that seismic building codes remained mostly policies on paper. They were not widely adopted or implemented. The cash-strapped government agencies were very poorly equipped to monitor building constructions and assess post-occupancy building performance. Besides, the government had very little control over the private-sector building industry. Illegal constructions, some of them built on very fragile reclaimed lands, could be legitimized with bribes. A great number of politicians and government fat cats were either in the real estate business or friends with corrupt industry tycoons. So, they would frequently tamper with what would be in the best interest of the people and the city. Furthermore, members of the parliament were hardly ever at the national assembly where they could create meaningful laws. Very few actually cared about the people. What do you expect in a political culture where there was so very little accountability?”
Jordan sounded resigned, “Ah, politics! Bangladesh surely has made great progress on the economic front over the past two decades, but we would always hear bitter stuff about the country’s legendary political infighting! I was once in Bangladesh in 2012 to cover then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit there. Oh, I was stuck in my hotel suite because there were hartals for days! How would a country prosper when politicians indulge in such mindless self-destruction?”
“Perhaps all good, pro-people planning depend on a good political culture!”
“Okay, I have a different question. Don’t you think the massive devastation of this earthquake is also partly due to Bangladesh’s overall geological condition? Isn’t most terrain in Bangladesh soft alluvial sediments? So, even a low 5.0 magnitude would feel like a greater tremor. Besides, during an earthquake, sediments are likely to liquefy, undermining building foundations and burying people and their properties. But, on the other hand, soft sediments can also withstand shock, taking more time for stress to build in faults overlain with sediments.”
“You are right about long intervals between major earthquakes in a deltaic region like ours. That means we should have been able to foresee a big one coming after the Great Assam Earthquake. Seismic mitigation should have been a political priority. But we love to call ourselves resilient! We don’t worry too much about anything. We go on, no matter what comes our way! We are, strangely, a very happy nation. We forget our wounds and quickly recover and adapt!”
Jordan and Raihan reached Babu Bazar. They had to put on masks because the putrid air of ghostlike old Dhaka became unbearable. They now slowly approached Ahsan Manjil. A makeshift hospital has been set up in front of the partially damaged Nawab house. Two Red Cross helicopters just descended there and a foreign medical team hurriedly approached an emergency operation theatre under a large tent. There were many dazed people with limbs missing, moaning and helplessly waiting for a divine intervention.
It was on the bank of River Buriganga that Dhaka began as a modest city centuries ago. Looking at the ruins Raihan wondered whether it would end here too. But he resolved not to give up on his beloved city. In case Dhaka survived this time around, the earthquake should be a solemn reminder for a fresh beginning.
Adnan Morshed is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist. He teaches in Washington, DC.