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I Feel the Earth Move



Let me start off with an apology to the great Carole King for using the title of her classic song for the title of this piece. Hey, I simply could not resist!

This morning at precisely 9:30 A.M., I most definitely did not “feel the earth move under my feet”. For that I’m extremely grateful. You see this morning my school was practicing an earthquake evacuation drill. We were all notified yesterday that this would be happening, and I received my specific responsibilities. Mostly that consisted of quickly escorting a classroom of children down two flights of stairs and out to a designated “safe zone”. Surprisingly, we were not operating on “Thai time” today. Nope. At 9:30 on the button alarms went off all over campus. These were not gentle, ding-a-ling, “may I please have your attention if it isn’t too much trouble” alarms. These were no nonsense alarms. They weren’t quite loud enough to wake the dead, but they definitely got your attention. If nothing else, they motivated you to get far, far away from the god-awful din.

Teachers in anuban are quite used to herding groups of small children around, so the mock evacuation went off without a hitch. Within a few minutes everyone, students and teachers alike were gathered in the parking lot outside our classrooms, right next to our gymnasium…….our very large gymnasium. I laughingly pointed out that if this had been a real earthquake, this would not be a safe place to be standing around. If the gym came tumbling down, and I have no doubt that it would, we would be buried in masonry. Actually, if this had been a real earthquake, we probably would never make it out of the classroom buildings before the structures pancaked flat.

Surviving an earthquake is always problematic, even back in Farangland. Anti-earthquake engineering models have gotten extremely sophisticated over the past few decades. I’ve seen some truly amazing technologies demonstrated on the National Geographic channel. In countries like Japan where severe earthquakes are all too common, strict building codes are the rule, rather than the exception.

In Thailand however, the very phrase “building code” is an oxymoron. As far as the Thais are concerned, the attitude is one of, “Codes? We don’t need no stinkin’ codes!” That’s not to say that building regulations don’t exist somewhere They very well may exist, although……they are probably buried in a rusty locked filing cabinet, (without keys) in a dank, moldy basement in some ministry office. It would take Indiana Jones on a good day to find the damned things. As far as enforcing any existing building codes is concerned, l would be laughing my head off, if the name Santika didn’t come all too quickly to mind.

Thailand may be noted for many wonderful things, but law enforcement is not one of them……except for the motorcycle helmet law, and then only if you are going an official check-point set up specifically to generate some revenue for the Boys in Brown. Oh sorry, I meant “protect the Thai populace”.

When we were building our home in Lampang, we became friends with one of the municipal building inspectors. Before issuing us a building permit, he scrutinized our blueprints to make sure everything was in order. He stopped by several times in the course of construction to chat with our builders, and to see how things were going. After a round of drinks late one afternoon, this fellow reluctantly admitted that he is often ordered to “look the other way” when some local VIP's building is in violation in some way. Looking the other way when the “tea money” gets handed over is simply the way things are done in Thailand. Sometimes the results of selectively enforcing the law are relatively minor; other times they lead to tragedy.

When the house next door to mine was under construction, I looked on in horror as the “so-called” contractor filled the foundation excavation with rubble and miscellaneous debris, instead of sand. When our foundation was being put in, the holes were filled with sand, sprayed liberally with water, and then compacted with a “thumper”. Everything then was allowed to settle and then thumped once again before concrete was poured on. This of course was to prevent settling after the house was built. It will come as no surprise that my neighbor’s home had large cracks in the walls before the damned thing was even finished!

I would have liked to have informed my neighbor of the shoddy construction before the walls went up, but my wife, being Thai, was horrified of being an unwanted messenger bearing bad news. Better to just pretend that we didn’t see anything. So what if a contractor substitutes sand for cement in the concrete mix? Hey, it’s not my business…. as long as nothing falls on my head. And so it goes here in The Land of Smiles. That being said, there is a parking garage here that I simply refuse to enter. I have no psychic powers, but that place has some seriously baaaaad vibes!

Getting back to the subject of earthquakes, I was curious how frequently they have occurred here in Thailand, and how destructive. Here is a portion of a piece I found online.

“Department director-general Somsak Photisat said the last earthquake with such severe effects occurred in 1545 and damaged the ancient city of Chiang Mai.

Historical records also showed that a big quake hit in Thailand in 1015, sinking the ancient city of Yonok and turning the area into a big lake, Somsak said.

He said the more recent major earthquakes to hit Thailand included:

A quake on May 13, 1935, that measured 6.5 on the Richter scale with its epicentre in Nan, near the Pua Fault. Since the epicentre was in a forested area, the damage was not recorded, but the quake was felt even in Bangkok.

Twin earthquakes on February 17, 1975. One of them had its epicentre in Tak’s Tha Song Yang district, near the May-Wangjao Fault, and measured 5.6 on the Richter scale while the other had its epicentre near the Srinakharin Dam in Kanchanaburi’s Si Sawat district and measured 5.9 on the Richter scale.

An earthquake on September 11, 1994, in Chiang Rai’s Phan district and nearby areas caused severe damage to the district hospital, temples and several schools. The quake’s epicentre was in Chiang Rai’s Pa Pao district and it measured 5.1 on the Richter scale.

Somsak said several more quakes occurred in Chiang Rai and nearby areas, including the Thai-Laos and Thai-Burma borders, in 1995 and 1996.

Well, Thailand has had a number of earthquakes in recent history, but not nearly as many as other places in Asia, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, China or Japan. I know that Thailand is geologically active. Less than an hour from my home In Chae Sorn National Park there are some hot springs. You can take some hot baths if you are so inclined, or cook yourself a batch of hard boiled eggs. For me the water is just too sulfurous. As far as I know there are no active or even dormant volcanoes, but correct me please if I am mistaken.

The risk for earthquakes in my opinion is not terribly high. I certainly don’t intend to lose any sleep over the possibility of the ground opening up and swallowing me anytime soon. I have a whole list of other more likely scenarios if I want to fanaticize about Armageddon. But that discussion will have to wait for another day. At the moment the sun is shinning, songbirds are singing and all’s right in my little corner of the world.

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Stickman's thoughts:

With the local construction standards what they are, it's just as well that Thailand is not prone to earthquakes. I'd hate to say what happened if there was a big one.