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16 December 2015

BUCHAREST, Romania – Welcome to Europe’s most earthquake-prone city, where tremors are commonplace and the next big earthquake looms large for its residents – but where many lack the financial or logistical means of moving out to safer accommodation.

A brief walk around Romania’s capital today, particularly Centru Veche (Old Town), and you’ll notice numerous buildings sporting circular red plaques about the size of manhole covers. These signify a “Class 1 risk”: buildings likely to collapse in the event of an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude or higher.

An earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale in 1977 rendered over 1,000 buildings in the city in a critical condition, injuring up to 11,000 people and leaving the capital in a war-like state. Since then, some 374 buildings, with a total 2,700 apartments, have been officially classified as Class I risk by the authorities. Of the Class I buildings, 184 pose a public threat.
The earthquakes that hit the region tend to have their epicentre in the nearby Vrancea Mountains, the most seismically active area of Romania. Quakes of over 7.0 in magnitude struck in 1908, 1940, and 1977 – in other words, one every 35 years or so. Thirty-eight years have passed since the last big one.

In the wake of October’s deadly Colectiv Club fire, which was caused by pyrotechnics and which killed 62, authorities have highlighted the danger the city faces from seismic activity. Many Bucharest buildings open to the public –nightclubs, bars, medical facilities, galleries, banks – that are deemed a Class I seismic risk are facing closure until they’ve been “consolidated” (that is, building work done to eliminate the most significant risks).

“The stock of old houses with high seismic risk is constituted by buildings erected between 1870s and 1940s,” says Valentin Mandache, an expert and consultant on Romania’s historic houses, as well as a former seismologist. “These already went through a few catastrophic earthquakes in that time. Most of the historic houses will suffer medium to serious damage, with an important number of them flattened down in rubble, producing victims.”

He adds: “The interwar apartment houses and blocks are at most risk of sudden collapse.”

Renting these risky apartments can be up to a third cheaper, and there’s no shortage of tenants willing to take the risk. I was one of them, but eventually moved out for fear of being sandwiched between the third and fifth floor should the quake strike.

Amalia Nicoliata, a resident renting a red-spot apartment, says: “[I moved in] because it was very close to the city centre and pretty cheap, which is the dream when searching for apartments.

“I’ve known all along about the risk,” she adds. “I mean it’s pretty obvious when you see the building itself, I actually love my apartment, but of course, if I had the opportunity, I would swiftly move to a safer place.”

At what cost?

If tragedy is to be averted when the next big earthquake hits, it will be an expensive affair consolidating the hundreds of vulnerable and dilapidated buildings. However, it would save potentially thousands of lives and some of Bucharest’s unique heritage architecture.

The majority of Bucharest period buildings were erected within the last two hundred years, so many of them have already been hit by at least two major earthquakes, in both 1940 and 1977. In addition to the Class 1 buildings there are also in excess of 300 buildings considered Class 2 seismic risk: that means they are unlikely to collapse, but likely to suffer serious structural damage.

“The most tragic loss, apart from the loss of life, will be that of the architectural heritage,2 says Mandache. “The historic architecture is the most visible identity marker of a community. Bucharest stands to lose immensely from its character and identity in the case of a big earthquake.”

The property bubble of last decade did little to encourage people to consolidate. Even buildings tagged with a red-spot were sometimes on the market for notably high prices. Private owners, professional property developers and consultants all overlooked risk to turn a quick profit; while many landlords renting out properties simply took down the red spots in the hope of not devaluing their stock.

Apart from the seismic classification scheme, the government has done little to decrease risk. Mandache believes this is due to myriad of factors: “Lack of political will, low civic pride among the inhabitants, corruption at all levels, inefficient allocation of funds, terrible administrative hurdles, stifling bureaucracy, and an inefficient organisation of Bucharest’s administration.”

Many tens of thousands took to the city’s streets after the recent nightclub fire, as people mourned the wasted lives and the taste of a lazy democracy rife with corruption. Their chants were not specific to party or politician. They had a louder and more demanding message: “Coruptia Ucide”. Corruption kills.

Even before the fire, civic society was already riled by the death of a 28-year-old policeman, who hit a pothole while assisting interior minister Gabriel Oprea’s motorcade. After disputing the legality of motorcades in low visibility conditions and rain, hundreds took to the streets calling for Oprea’s resignation.

One of the terms of Romania’s ascension into the EU in 2007, some eight years ago now, was that it would put an end to corruption, which reaches all levels of society. In recent years the country has made purging high-level corruption a major issue, with investigations driven by a specialised agency, the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). Among the illustrious crop of DNA’s indicted have been dozens of mayors, five members of parliament, two ex-ministers, seven judges and 13 prosecutors, and a former prime minister, Adrian Nastase (2000-2004). Last year alone DNA convicted 1,138 individual – more than 90 per cent of those indicted.

Colectiv Club had insufficient safety measures in place. Yet it was granted its permit by the mayor of Bucharest’s Sector 4, Cristian Popescu Piedone, who resigned several days after the fire following pressure from civic society and President Klaus Iohannis.

If any good is to come from Romania’s deadliest fire, perhaps it will be that the authorities’ passive attitude towards public danger will change. And it might just be in time to avert a second, far greater national tragedy that is simply waiting to happen.