LFE at 50

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In 2023, EERI is marking the 50th anniversary of the formal establishment of our Learning From Earthquakes Program. Read on for the first in a series of Earthquake Reconnaissance Retrospectives we are sharing this year to celebrate the program’s 50th year and showcase the lessons learned over the past decades. We’re marking the anniversaries of selected major earthquakes by highlighting resources from the LFE archives and sharing recollections from EERI members. For more on the history, impacts, and future of earthquake reconnaissance, join us in celebrating LFE at 50 at the 2023 EERI Annual Meeting.

LFE Earthquake Reconnaissance Retrospective #1: Kobe, January 17, 1995

EERI Newsletter KobeIn January 1995, EERI and the Institute for Social Safety Science of Japan (ISSS) co-sponsored the 4th US-Japan Urban Disaster Reduction workshop that was to begin on January 17th in Osaka, Japan, about 30 km east of Kobe. The day the workshop was set to begin, participants were awakened early by very strong shaking (one participant likened it to a dog with the building in its mouth, angrily shaking it back and forth). The shaking turned out to be the devastating Hyogo-ken Nanbu (Kobe) earthquake disaster. The workshop organizers canceled all the sessions and sent participants to Kobe to record immediate observations of the earthquake damage. EERI members recall walking toward ever more distressing scenes of destruction. Their observations formed the basis for the EERI Kobe Reconnaissance report. Below, Craig Comartin (M.EERI 1987), one of the EERI members attending the workshop, reflects on the earthquake impacts and recounts major lessons learned from the earthquake.

Kobe 1995: A personal account by Craig Comartin 

The most devastating earthquake to hit Japan since the 1923 Tokyo earthquake occurred at 5:46 A.M. local time on January 17, 1995 exactly a year after the Northridge earthquake. Over 5,000 people were reported killed, more than 26,000 people were injured, and over 300,000 people were left homeless. At the time of the earthquake, about 40 American engineers, scientists, and government officials were in Osaka, 30 km east of Kobe, for a joint U.S.-Japan Workshop on Urban Earthquake Hazard Reduction, co-sponsored by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) and the Japan Institute of Social Safety Science (ISSS), and funded by National Science Foundation (NSF). The workshop participants immediately undertook preliminary post-earthquake reconnaissance efforts. I was part of the US side in this effort. I was also fortunate to return to Kobe several times during the ensuing months and years.

Kobe FireThe Great Hanshin Earthquake, as it is also known, is an important record of the effects of earthquakes on modern high density cities and surrounding areas.

So what did we learn from the Kobe earthquake?

Much of the damage deaths and injuries were caused by a conflagration of fires that burned quickly through the densely populated (approximately three times more dense than Oakland, California as an example) and the light wood frame construction typical of Japanese houses, The making of plastic shoes was a cottage industry in Kobe. The materials used were highly flammable and most households used kerosene heaters that ignited them during the earthquake. Additionally we witnessed the now proverbial importance of housing displaced individuals and families after the event.

Kobe today is not the city it was prior to the earthquake. The economic impacts of the earthquake were substantial. The port of Kobe has never fully recovered. Part of this is due to the critical transportation corridor between Osaka and Kobe that was severely disrupted with bridge and highway interchange structures collapses that took years to repair or replace.

The 7.2 magnitude event occurred on a strike slip fault that had a bilateral rupture of approximately 40 km. Liquefaction induced subsidence, and ground displacement were pervasive In the reclaimed lands along the margins of Osaka bay, Quay walls failed throughout the port. These factors contributed significantly to the damage of port facilities.

kobe building damageCity planning even in the United States is a chaotic process at best. There are city planning guidelines in Japan, but these are often not enforced systematically. In Kobe, poor planning, and development contributed to the effects of the earthquake. Streets and Kobe are very narrow hampering, emergency vehicles, including ambulances, and fire fighting equipment.

Japanese construction practice for buildings contributed to the severe damage or collapse of both commercial and residential buildings. For example, Japanese houses typically have clay tile roofs and dry rot, and pest infestation is widespread. Building codes at the time of the earthquake allowed practices that contributed to the poor performance of new construction of relatively large commercial buildings.

Railways are a vital component of transportation in Japan. Both the Shinkansen (high speed train) and other railroads were severely damaged and closed. Kansai international airport was located 30 km from the epicenter on a man-made island. The island settled over a foot but no damage was found in the airport facilities themselves, and the runway remained operational. Overhead utilities, comprising, electrical and telecommunications, fared well. In contrast, buried utilities, including wastewater, gas, and freshwater suffered extensive damage throughout Kobe.

Several major hospitals were extensively damaged. However, many doctors’ offices remained open and allowed for treatment of relatively minor injuries. It was also noted that many people having lost their home, possessions, and neighborhood communities suffered from PTSD.

These lessons learned from the Kobe earthquake have been captured and preserved in the LFE earthquake archive. The current LFE database is a valuable tool for professionals and academics. In my opinion, this program defines EERI‘s purpose and soul, notwithstanding, mission statements, and goals on record. It is our responsibility to improve it with continuous effective curation. Several years ago, along with other former officers and directors of EERI, I made a pledge to support LFE. Today, all members can contribute at any level. This allows all members, including those at an early stage of their career development,to contribute. You will be receiving more information in the near future about ways to contribute to LFE in its 50th year. I sincerely hope that you will take advantage of this opportunity to maintain and improve the learning from the Learning from Earthquakes program at EERI.

Craig Comartin
M.EERI 1987; President 2005-2006

Craig Comartin







Photos, top to bottom: excerpt from EERI's February 1995 newsletter; rail facility damage and fires in Kobe; building damage in Kobe; Craig Comartin atop UC Berkeley's Sather Tower.

More information

The LFE earthquake page for Kobe showcases a range of information and resources about the earthquake, including newsletter articles, reconnaissance reports, photo slide collections, Spectra articles, and more. Here are a few highlights: