Japan Hospital That Survived Earthquake Has Lessons For Pacific Northwest

Jan 29, 2015

Scientists say the northwest is due for an earthquake and tsunami as big as the one that struck Japan nearly four years ago. That could spell trouble for fire stations, schools and hospitals built with little or no seismic engineering.
Oregon Field Guide’s Ed Jahn recently traveled to Japan. He visited one hospital there that survived the 2011 quake without so much as a broken window.
 

Not a single window broke in the Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital during Japan's Magnitude 9 earthquake on March 11, 2011.
Credit Jay Wilson / OPB

“Earthquake audio”
This is what a magnitude 9 earthquake sounds like.
“continue audio during quake”
What you’re hearing comes from a video shot inside the Red Cross Hospital in Ishinomaki, Japan on March 11th, 2011. Papers fall, doors swing wildly.
What you don’t hear is panic. And after three minutes, the shaking stops.
Not a single window is broken. The lights are still on.
Dr. Kaneda “No staff were hurt and none of the important medical equipment was damaged.”
That’s Dr. Iwao Kaneda the hospital director.
He's speaking with Jay Wilson, chair of Oregon’s Seismic Safety Council. This is Wilson’s third visit to Japan since the quake.
He’s seen plenty of devastation, but the hospital is a success story.
Wilson “any number of aftershocks could have also shut that hospital down, but it didn’t……..”
Other medical facilities were destroyed by the tsunami that inundated half of Ishinomaki City that day.
The Red Cross hospital- built in 2006 on a small hill – stayed dry. It was the region’s only fully functioning hospital on March 11.

Jay Wilson, Oregon Seismic Commission Chair, surveys tsunami damage on a 2011 visit to Japan.
Credit Jay Wilson

There’s another reason this hospital survived though.
Nat sounds, walk into b asement
Hiraku Abe – a Red Cross engineer ushers us down a stairway into the basement.
Reaction sounds “whoa look at this…wow…
The large space we enter is kind of like a concrete moat. At the center, the hospital floats on columns of rubber and metal springs.
It’s as if the five-story building is balancing on a hundred massive pogo sticks.
Pyrch “this is geotechnical engineer, uh structural engineer…lemme start over cuz the word I was gonna say is porn! (laughs)
That’s Allison Pyrch, a geotechnical engineer with Seattle-based Hart Crowser. She says the springs are an example of something called base-isolation.
This kind of thing exists in the U.S. but it’s not common.
Pyrch “this is super cool. This is not something that I’ve gotten to see before...this is not only base-isolated but the deep foundations here are 200 feet deep…..”
The hospital stood up to the fourth largest earthquake ever observed. Engineers say it can withstand several more quakes of equal size.
That’s a lesson Wilson- the guy in charge of Oregon’s seismic planning, wants to bring home, because right now no building in Oregon meets this standard.
Wilson “it’s a powerful example of human ingenuity, of human adaptability, of human will to coexist with the natural environment. You know, why is it such a hard argument?
One reason is that the Ishinomaki hospital cost 102 million dollars- a price that would probably cause sticker shock in Oregon’s coastal towns. Some Oregon communities have trouble raising money just to move public buildings out of tsunami zones, let alone to pay for this kind of engineering.
Still, the Red Cross hospital remained standing at the very moment people needed it most. And that’s the takeaway Wilson wants to bring back to Oregon as the state debates how much earthquake preparation is worth.
Wilson “in my mind we can’t afford not to do it. “
Wilson “the payoff for that big hospital in Ishinomaki is, it worked!”
According to a 2012 article in the engineering journal, structure --Japan has more than 6500 base-isolated buildings. There were only 125 across the U.S.

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