Risks of living dangerously in a quake zone

Costas Orhanidis looks pensively at his single-story home in Manis Street, Menidi, in western Attica. The small house that he called home until just a few day ago is leaning to one side. Inside, plaster has fallen, crushing furniture and electrical appliances. «Thank God I wasn’t inside,» he said. If everything he says is true, then his home must be added to the list of those damaged in last Sunday’s earthquake in Arcadia. How it was possible for a house in Attica to be damaged by a quake so far away is explained by the fact that Orhanidis home had been condemned in the major quake of February 24, 1981, a full 27 years ago. The house was never demolished and its owner never moved out, staying on at his own risk. «I had nowhere else to live. I was between the devil and the deep blue sea. In the 1999 quake (in Attica) the house emerged unscathed, even though half of the buildings in the Menidi area were condemned.» As his house had been. According to Orhanidis, no one came to demolish it because the state is not obliged to demolish condemned buildings after a quake, except in specific circumstances. «Every town-planning bureau’s department of dangerous structures is responsible for these buildings and, after an inspection, it is they who must act,» explained Michalis Polytopoulos, head of the Earthquake Victims’ Rehabilitation Service (YAS). «YAS issues demolition orders after acts of God and gives instructions for them to be carried out by a certain date. However, responsibility for the demolition lies with the owner of the building, who has to seek the assistance of the state or local government if unable to carry it out himself.» «Buildings are classified as dangerous in accordance with the provisions of a 1928 presidential decree,» explained Professor Theodosis Tasios of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA). «The classification protocol that designates a building as condemned means ‘non-repairable.’ Therefore, before it can be inhabited again it must be repaired… There is an unofficial silence with regard to how much inaction is tolerated, and what happens after that. Eventually, the demolition orders go ahead when there is a risk to the safety of neighbors and passers-by.» «A building that has been given a ‘red’ (condemned) classification is not necessarily destined for demolition,» added Giorgos Gazetas, professor of soil mechanics at the NTUA. «It is simply that, as a rule, the cost of repairing a ‘red’ building is considerable and therefore it is usually preferable to demolish it, unless of course it is of historic value and must be preserved for particular reasons.» In Kalamata there are still about 25 neoclassical buildings that were condemned after the quake of 1986. They were never demolished because they were protected as listed, but their owners have never repaired them despite the incentives offered at the time. The Environment and Public Works Ministry does not know how many buildings in Athens have been condemned; neither does any other authority. As for Orhanidis, he escaped by pure luck. «I had gone to Omonia, where the builders gather, on the chance I might find a day’s labor. I didn’t, but I came home to find my house a wreck.» «I applied to the municipality,» he said, «and they have given me a container home at the Axion Esti earthquake victims’ camp. I hope I can find work quickly so I can get back on my feet again. I am 57, and it’s no longer easy.»