SAN DIEGO - What happens when a series of massive earthquakes hits a five-story medical facility with an intensive care unit, operating room and elevator?
Structural engineers at the University of California, San Diego, began tests Tuesday to find out. They will repeatedly shake a building over the next two weeks as part of the $5 million experiment funded by government agencies, foundations and others.
The project stands out because it will test what happens to items inside a building - such as elevators, stairs and medical equipment - rather than the building itself. A group of hard-hatted scientists, engineers, earthquake experts and news media waited in front of the experimental structure for one of the first tests.
"In five minutes, 1994's Northridge earthquake recorded at Los Angeles," a loudspeaker announced. The building then moved on rollers simulating the motion created by the magnitude-6.7 quake that heavily damaged the Los Angeles region. The project reflects a new way of thinking among earthquake safety experts who have been focusing on shoring up hospitals, large apartment buildings and schools so communities can rebound quickly after a disaster.
"What we are doing is the equivalent of giving a building an EKG to see how it performs after an earthquake and a post-earthquake fire," said Tara Hutchinson of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, the project's lead principal investigator. Since the Northridge temblor and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area, billions of dollars have been spent on retrofitting thousands of unreinforced brick buildings, roads, bridges and university buildings.
Meanwhile, thousands of potentially dangerous concrete school buildings, high-rise apartments and hospitals built before California changed its building code in 1976 have not been identified, according to experts. The 80-foot structure being used in the experiment was built atop a giant table that will shake in ways similar to major quakes, such as the Northridge quake and Chile's magnitude-8.8 temblor that struck in 2010.
The top two floors are outfitted with a surgery room and intensive care unit. More than 500 sensors and 80 cameras placed strategically throughout the building will monitor everything from vibrating hospital beds to swaying surgical lights. Also inside the structure are modern ceilings, a heating and air conditioning system, functional sprinklers, computer servers, laboratory equipment and electrical equipment and wiring.
Researchers also will look at fire barriers and run controlled burning tests following the two-week experiment as they try to understand how flames and smoke might spread in such a building. Richard McCarthy, executive director of the California Seismic Safety Commission, said the tests will help in the development of better building codes.
"We learn from all earthquakes, not only the ones in the United States," he said. "Many of these events are being tested here today to help us change our codes and make recommendations for building safety." Researchers expect to publish their findings after spending the next year analyzing the data.
By JULIE WATSON Associated Press
The Associated Press