By Anna Saghabalian
Armenia’s chief seismologist expressed concern on Friday about the ongoing construction boom in Yerevan, saying that new residential and office buildings springing up there may not as resistant to earthquakes as their owners claim.
Alvaro Antonian, head of the National Seismic Defense Service (NSDS), issued the warning as Armenia commemorated the 19th anniversary of the 1988 earthquake that killed some 25,000 people and made hundreds of thousands of others homeless. Thousands of them still live in makeshift homes.
As always, President Robert Kocharian led official remembrance ceremonies, laying a wreath at a memorial to earthquake victims in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city that accounted for much of the immense death toll. Kocharian formed last month an ad hoc government commission that will coordinate official events to mark the earthquake’s 20th anniversary next year.
The huge scale of the devastation has been widely blamed on the poor safety of the Soviet-era buildings and houses. They were not designed to resist calamities of lower magnitude and were often built in contravention of basic safety norms.
Antonian warned that a similarly powerful quake could wreak havoc on Yerevan even if its likelihood is considered low by his agency. He was particularly worried about the increasingly common remodeling of Soviet-era apartments blocks in the city center. Wealthy citizens owning apartments on their last floors routinely double their living space by adding entire stories to the buildings.
Antonian also pointedly declined to vouch for the safety of new expensive high-rise buildings emerging in downtown Yerevan, saying that they are often disproportionately high for an earthquake-prone country like Armenia and located too close to older structures. “Today the construction industry prefers quick profits,” he complained. “They think about investing money, making as much profits as possible and then disappearing.”
The new buildings are being advertised by the builders as very reliable and earthquake-resistant.
Antonian said this is not necessarily the case, arguing that few of them undergo a seismic examination by the NSDS. “Those are just advertisements,” he told a news conference. “Only the National Seismic Defense Service can professionally evaluate a building’s seismic strength. Unfortunately, there are statements that leave you startled.”
According to local estate agents, only those people who lived in Gyumri and other towns in northwestern Armenia in 1988 seem to take seismic concerns seriously when buying an apartment these days. “Buyers who lived in Gyumri or Spitak want stone buildings and lower floors,” said one of them.