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China's quake: Why did so many schools collapse?

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Earthquake resistance, he notes, does not mean buildings don't sustain damage; they do, but don't collapse.

Schools, he says, are particularly vulnerable because they are often mid-sized buildings, smaller projects for contractors that are paid for the a government bureaucracies. Two recent earthquakes in Indonesia and in Kashmir also resulted in a disproportionate student deaths. "Often school buildings suffer quite a bit," Elnashnai says.

China has "fairly rigorous building codes that have been in place. The problem is implementation of the codes," says Andrew Smeall, an associate with the Asia Society's US-China Center in New York.

Roger Musson, a seismologist at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, Scotland, notes that China has good earthquake engineers, but "you can never tell what's going to happen on the spot."

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