Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 7 Issue 32 | August 8, 2008 |

  Cover Story
  Special Feature
  One Off
  Food for Thought
  Straight Talk
  Book Review
  Write to Mita
  Star Diary

   SWM Home

Special Feature

Halls in Danger

We always talk about being prepared for an emergency. But when something happens, we only have a split second sometimes to think about how to react. The choice we make is not always sensible. How the hall residents of Dhaka University reacted during a recent earthquake is just an example of that.

Hana Shams Ahmed

It was 12:52am on a Sunday, and most people in Dhaka were sleeping. It was the first working day of the week and no one wanted to be late for work or school the next day. Most of the hall residents of Dhaka University were awake though. Some were chatting in groups and others were studying in their rooms. Suddenly the ground beneath them shook threateningly. The earthquake with a magnitude of 5.6 on the Richter scale (although Indian media reported it as 4.8 on the Richter scale), with an epicentre 238 km northeast off Dhaka rocked most parts of Bangladesh in the early hours of July 27.

"It was like someone was shaking my chair violently," says Arman, a resident of one of the halls, "only there was no one there." In a fit of panic, fearing that their buildings might collapse, students from the residential halls jumped from balconies and stampeded down the stairs trying to save their lives. Many students, who were sleeping, were woken up by the shouting and just followed the crowd before they had a chance to understand what was going on. In the process 40 students were hurt. Abdus Samad Azad of the Bangla department jumped from the window of his second-floor room in Ziaur Rahman Hall and broke both his legs. Ajit Dev, from Jagannath Hall, broke his foot when he jumped from the balcony onto the concrete slab below.

Many ended up spending the night under the open sky. Except for a panic-stricken elderly man who had a heart attack in Sirajganj, no other casualties were reported from around the country. Fearing that they would be buried alive in the wobbly buildings students of Jagannath Hall, Haji Mohammad Mohsin Hall, Surya Sen Hall, Ziaur Rahman Hall, AF Rahman Hall, Salimullah Muslim Hall, Fazlul Haque Hall, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Hall and Kobi Jasimuddin Hall opted to risk breaking their limbs by jumping off the buildings.

Students from different DU halls jumped from the balconies to save their lives, fearing that their fragile halls would collapse.

It was on October 15, 1985, when over 400 students packed in the auditorium of Jagannath Hall of Dhaka University watching the television when the 64-year-old building collapsed on them. Thirty-nine students were killed and scores of others injured. "Ever since the earthquake in 2006 we have been telling the university authorities that the halls need to be renovated," says Prof. Dr. Mehedi Ahmed Ansary of the Department of Civil Engineering at BUET and also the Vice President of Bangladesh Earthquake Society (BES), "some of the buildings are very old and they were not constructed to be earthquake resistant."

Scientists have been warning about a possibility of a devastating earthquake in the range of 8-9 on the Richter scale in the northeastern and southeastern parts of Bangladesh from 2005. There are two fault lines cross Bangladesh. The Dauki fault at the bordering area of Sylhet-Meghalaya and the Sitakunda-Teknaf fault at the Chittagong coastal area can cause strong earthquakes in the country. According to a USAID report, 'The country's position adjacent to the very active Himalayan front and ongoing deformation in nearby parts of south-east Asia expose it to strong shaking from a variety of earthquake sources that can produce tremors of magnitude 8 or greater. The potential for magnitude 8 or greater earthquakes on the nearby Himalayan front if very high, and the effects of strong shaking from such an earthquake directly effect much of the country.'

The authorities have already decided to shift around one hundred students from 30 rooms of Mohsin Hall to the hall auditorium, university gymnasium and provost quarter of Shahidullah Hall. Some 400 students of East Building of Jagannath Hall, which was declared too frail for the earthquake in 2006, may need to be shifted to the other four buildings at the hall and around 50 female students of Honours Building of Rokeya hall, which was identified vulnerable for the earthquake on April, to the Fayzunnessa Chhatri Hall, the building for the MPhil and PhD researchers of the university.

"The condition of Jagannath Hall is the worst," says Prof. Dr. Mehedi Ahmed Ansary, "When we design a building the soil under the building is a major issue.

When the building was constructed the quality of construction was also not very good. So the building is very bad on both counts, the soil and the building construction quality."

Students from the Honours building have been shifted to Begum Fayzunnesa Hall because of the risk to their lives. Bamboo poles placed along the balcony of Mohsin Hall.

In the 1960s when most of these buildings were erected there were no building codes followed during construction. But some buildings like the Jagannath Hall and the Honours building of Rokeya Hall were built with unreinforced masonry (brick buildings without rod foundations). Unreinforced masonry is brittle and weak and therefore easily crumbles during the intense shaking of an earthquake. Although there has been much advancement in earthquake engineering, there is still no technology that can predict earthquake. Therefore, we must begin to do whatever we can to be prepared to face another such a disaster. Rapid and thoughtless urbanisation has been a curse for Dhaka City, reaching an all-time high in the last one decade. No building code ultimately will provide safety for the menacing high-rise buildings sprouting up in every available corner in the city. Only preparation can help minimise casualties in the event of a big earthquake because. Ultimately, it's not the earthquake but the buildings that kill people.

What to do during an earthquake…
-Take shelter under a table, desk or bench.
-If at home take shelter under a bed.
-Stay away from glass windows, heavy objects, laboratory chemicals and equipments, and overhanging objects.
-Do not jump from a building in fear.
-If outside the house stay away from buildings, big trees, and electricity and gas supply lines.
-Try to take shelter in a fairly open place.
-Stay prepared for an aftershock.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008