Brad Wham, assistant research professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, was a member of one of the three Learning From Earthquakes (LFE) reconnaissance teams that traveled to Turkey in March to assess the impacts of the Feb. 6 Kahramanmaraş earthquake. The 7.8- and 7.7-magnitude earthquakes caused massive destruction of property and infrastructure. More than 50,000 people were killed.
Wham’s team focused on “lifelines” — distributed infrastructure that facilitates the functioning of society — including water and wastewater systems, transportation, and energy generation and distribution. During their seven days in the field, the teams traveled more than 3,000 miles in vans and visited 170 sites to document both the infrastructure that performed well and that didn’t perform well.
The first reconnaissance report — a joint effort by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) and Geotechnical Extreme Event Report (GEER) — became publicly available May 6, the three-month anniversary of the earthquake. The report, which includes a 55-page “short” summary of the lifeline team’s observations, provides guidance to industry stakeholders and the academic community, including identifying follow-up research activities that would be useful to better understand the earthquake’s impact.
What led to your conducting research in Turkey after the earthquake?
I have been fortunate to serve on various teams that have visited areas after earthquakes and other natural hazards. In terms of Turkey, EERI asked me to join the lifelines team to document the successes and challenges and share the lessons learned with the engineering and academic communities.
What parts of Turkey did you visit?
The first half of our operation was based in Adana, in the southern part of Turkey. The second half was based out of Gaziantep. While operating out of those two cities, we visited a large part of the affected region. However, it’s impossible to see everything — it’s a four- to five-hour drive on good roads from the north to the south of the impacted region.
Some of the other cities we visited included Antakya, which experienced significant building collapse; Iskenderun, located along the Mediterranean with severe soil liquefaction damage; and Kahramanmaraş, the earthquake’s namesake.
What was the goal of your research?
The mission was to rapidly document the impacts and identify research questions before information was lost due to repairs and debris removal, which typically happens quickly after major events. The primary objective was to understand the impact of the natural hazard, not only the magnitude of damage to individual components and systems, but also the actions taken by utilities to return basic levels of service, impediments or successes that influenced restoration time and the overall impact on society and community recovery.
It’s also important to identify topics that should be further investigated over various time scales, and help to justify funding those investigations. We hope our work will encourage other teams to continue valuable research activities and improve resilience to natural hazards.
What were some of the key findings?
Our team specifically looked at lifeline systems, including energy, transportation, water and wastewater, universities, schools and other industrial facilities, to try to understand their performance and impact on people. You may be able to go home if your house is standing, but if you don't have water, sewer, power, natural gas or roads/bridges to get you home — each of these systems impact your ability to resume life, operate businesses and resume civilization.
Many lifeline systems that were seismically designed performed well. For instance, the electric power did reasonably well, the collapse of large dams was avoided and power-generation facilities did pretty good overall. Roadways, airports and bridges were damaged in certain areas, but the ones that were designed and built after the 1999 earthquake in Turkey performed relatively well.
However, some of the other systems were not built to the highest standards. For instance, the water distribution systems were significantly damaged, making it difficult to get water to the population. Many wastewater treatment facilities are still inoperable, and if you can’t treat wastewater, it goes into the local waterways. While drinking water systems are pressurized such that leaks can sometimes be identified, it’s difficult to identify where damages and repairs are needed in gravity flow wastewater pipelines. It’s going to be a long recovery process in order to bring back proper sanitation services.
The water treatment plants were generally operable, but due to water pipeline damage and other issues, many residents question whether it’s safe to drink the water.
Did anything surprise you?
Transmission lines that carry water long distances into metropolitan areas are extremely important infrastructure components. In some instances, 9-foot diameter pipelines crossed faults through tunnels and interacted with other underground utilities, like gas transmission lines. Many were damaged during the earthquake due to 4- or 5-m fault offsets, but one of the biggest surprises was the ability of the Turkish utilities to repair these pipelines rapidly despite significant damages.
Turkish utilities were able to get the water supply returned to many cities relatively rapidly, and although the treatment level was questionable, at least water for firefighting and non potable uses became available. It was pretty incredible, especially considering the staffing challenges. One large utility had 2,500 employees. After the Turkey earthquake, the utility struggled to get 200 people to report to work. Everyone was looking for lost family members, trying to figure out if their houses were still there, and protecting their property from looters. Many utility staff perished in the earthquake. Availability of staff was not an issue typically considered and emphasized the importance of establishing rapid mutual support programs with surrounding national and international organizations.
Did any of your findings in Turkey relate to your Marshall Fire research?
Both disasters had similar types of interdependencies where the loss of one service affects others. For example, in Turkey some water pumping and treatment facilities didn’t have backup generators. The lack of electric power and natural gas affected the ability of the water system to provide services, which was also a challenge during the Marshall Fire (in Colorado). Also, some transportation systems were damaged, preventing the delivery of resources and limiting access to critical facilities (e.g., dams) for inspection. During the Marshall Fire, some routes were inaccessible, impeding the ability to respond to the fire.
Are there lessons from the Turkey earthquake that could be applied to the United States?
The Turkey earthquakes remind us of the importance of lifelines and their role in recovering from a large event. It’s important to learn from well-performing sites as well as damaged ones.
If we were to have a similar magnitude earthquake in the U.S., we hope that our buildings, as well as infrastructure systems, would perform better. That said, Turkey has modern cities with similar infrastructure systems to the U.S., and in many cases newer. Many of the sites we visited were built in the last 20 years and were designed with earthquakes in mind, and that was apparent in their performance in many situations. In the U.S., it's important to recognize that many of our lifeline systems are aging; continual assessment and improvements are vital to regular operation and recovery following natural disasters.
Top photo: Assistant Research Professor Brad Wham, far right, stands with members of his Lifeline team in front of water transmission pipelines damaged by fault ruptures in Gaziantep, Turkey.
Lower photo: Collapsed power transmission tower in Hatay, Turkey.