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Earthquake Warnings And Risky Buildings, From Turkey To Colombia's Ring Of Fire

Colombia has a history of earthquakes, yet many of its buildings are not designed to withstand even moderate tremors. As Turkey and Syria reel from disaster, will other countries around the world learn any lessons?

Photo of a man walking past destroyed buildings in ​Kahramanmaras, Turkey, on Feb. 15

Walking past destroyed buildings in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, on Feb. 15

Héctor Abad Faciolince


BOGOTÁ — As someone here in Colombia said last week, cutting your pinky finger is more painful than 100 people dying in an earthquake quake in Turkey. I imagine the Turkish people in the region of Antakya, which was hit by a devastating earthquake, likewise care more about a bleeding finger than any deaths in faraway quake-prone regions of Colombia — even if they have such quaintly Asiatic names as Armenia or Antioquia.

Indeed, Antakya and Antioquia both recall the ancient city of Antioch and, distance aside, people everywhere on the planet tend to be self-involved and oblivious to the plight of others.

Perhaps because my finger was feeling fine, I was sickened by the news of 20,000 or more people dying in the quakes in Turkey and Syria. But as we only truly are moved to sympathize when we are drawn close, a Colombian must see last week's event in terms of the Armero (volcano) disaster, which killed 23,000, or the 1999 quake that killed almost 2,000 people, around the Colombian city of Armenia.

That quake registered just 6.4 on the Richter scale and killed some 1,000 people, while the quakes in Antakya and northern Syria measured 7.8 and 7.5.

History of quakes

I wonder who thought of calling the mountainous territory that is home to a fifth of all Colombians, and where I was born, Antioquia? The first Antioch, on the Orontes, was founded by a general of Alexander the Great, Seleucus I Nicator (who founded a dynasty in Syria). In Greek its name was pronounced Antiógia, and today in Turkish, it is Antakya.

No amount of zeal could protect the city from the earth's wrath.

Did people call our region Antioquia for its recurring earthquakes, like Antioch? The Hellenistic city has certainly shaken through the ages, with the first quake striking in 148 B.C., as the chronicler John Malalas wrote.

There was a quake in A.D. 37, under the Roman emperor Caligula, while another emperor, Trajan, was almost buried in rubble there in A.D. 115. The city was flattened by another quake in 526, under the Eastern Roman emperor Justin, before suffering the iron hand, not of the earth this time, but of its Turkish conquerors, from the Seljuks to the Mamluks and Ottomans.

None of the Abrahamic faiths, and no amount of zeal, could protect the city from the earth's wrath, which makes you wonder: better off studying geology than theology?

Photo of then \u200bColombian President Juan Manuel Santos looking out of a plane window, on his way to Betualia, Colombia, after it was hit by an earthquake in 2015

Then Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on his way to Betualia, Colombia, after it was hit by an earthquake in 2015

Colombia's Presidency/Xinhua/ZUMA

Learning from mistakes

Antioquia has a parallel history of vigorous temblors. A good few happened before the Spanish conquest and in the colonial period, though records were patchy then. In 1911, Medellín suffered a magnitude 7.2 quake, Pueblo Rico in 1935 and the entire Coffee Region a magnitude 7 quake in 1938.

We had a 6.7 magnitude quake in 1952, two in 1962 measuring 5.6 and 6.8 on the Richter scale, a 6.6 quake in 1977, and Armenia's 6.4 quake as mentioned. Being on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Colombia is as vulnerable to earthquakes as the lands around Antioch.

Expect our buildings to collapse just the same.

Just as it is difficult to feel the pain of distant folk, we are hard pressed to learn from experiences that are not our own. Yet we should think, what would happen if Antioquia suffered a quake like the one in Antakya, with its epicenter near Medellín? We've seen shoddy buildings collapse here, and that was without even the slightest shake from the earth!

One of the collapsed Turkish structures had been sold as a "piece of paradise" and reportedly built respecting all quake regulations. Yet the 12-floor building, falling like a pack of cards, became an instant graveyard to 1,000 of its occupants.

With the quake we had in 1911 and worse examples in other regions, expect our buildings to collapse just the same as in Turkey. We should observe distant calamities more closely, to avoid one landing on our doorstep.

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A Refuge From China's Rat Race: The Young People Flocking To Buddhist Monasteries

Unemployment, stress in the workplace, economic difficulties: more and more young Chinese graduates are flocking to monasteries to find "another school of life."

Photograph of a girl praying at a temple during Chinese Lunar New Year. She is burning incense.

Feb 20, 2015 - Huaibei, China - Chinese worshippers pray at a temple during the Lunar New Yeat

Frédéric Schaeffer

JIAXING — It's already dawn at Xianghai Temple when Lin, 26, goes to the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas for the 5:30 a.m. prayer.

Still half-asleep, the young woman joins the monks in chanting mantras and reciting sacred texts for an hour. Kneeling, she bows three times to Vairocana, also known as the Great Sun Buddha, who dominates the 42-meter-high hall representing the cosmos.

Before grabbing a vegetarian breakfast in the adjacent refectory, monks and devotees chant around the hall to the sound of drums and gongs.

"I resigned last October from the e-commerce company where I had been working for the past two years in Nanjing, and joined the temple in January, where I am now a volunteer in residence," explains the young woman, soberly dressed in black pants and a cream linen jacket.

Located in the city of Jiaxing, over a hundred kilometers from Shanghai, in eastern China, the Xianghai temple is home to some 20 permanent volunteers.

Unlike Lin, most of them only stay for a couple days or a few weeks. But for Lin, who spends most of her free time studying Buddhist texts in the temple library, the change in her life has been radical. "I used to do the same job every day, sometimes until very late at night, writing all kinds of reports for my boss. I was exhausted physically and mentally. I felt my life had no meaning," she says.

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