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Quake test could prompt ways to shore up hospitals

Elias Espino, an engineering student at San Diego State University, stands in front of the five-story, 80-foot-high building constructed to study earthquakes on Tuesday.

Associated Press

Elias Espino, an engineering student at San Diego State University, stands in front of the five-story, 80-foot-high building constructed to study earthquakes on Tuesday.

SAN DIEGO — What happens when a series of massive earthquakes hits a five-story medical facility with an intensive care unit, operating room and elevator?

Structural engineers at the University of California at San Diego began tests Tuesday to find out. Over the next two weeks, they will repeatedly rock an 80-foot-high building erected on a giant shake table as part of a $5 million experiment funded by government agencies, foundations and others.

The project stands out because researchers are studying what happens to items inside the building — such as elevators, stairs, lights and medical equipment — rather than just the building's structure.

A group of hard-hatted scientists, engineers, earthquake safety experts and news media stood in front of the mock facility to witness the first tests Tuesday.

"In five minutes, 1994's Northridge earthquake recorded at Los Angeles," a loudspeaker announced.

The shake table simulated the motion created by the magnitude-6.7 quake that heavily damaged the Los Angeles region.

The towering 1.4 million-pound building jolted and slid back and forth. But there were no sounds of crashing computers, crumbling concrete walls, bursting water pipes or hospital beds hurtling into walls.

Then came an even bigger one — a fake quake similar to Chile's massive 8.8 temblor in 2010.

The building swung erratically in an impressive dancing motion, as if it was on a skateboard. But the overhead lights and a computer monitor that could be seen through the windows on the top two floors, which feature a mock surgery suite and intensive care unit, did not appear to be moving dramatically.

"The ground moved a lot and the building actually stayed put," Jose Restrepo, a construction engineering professor at UCSD said after the tests.

Quake test could prompt ways to shore up hospitals 04/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 10:07pm]

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