Ambulance sirens screamed, firefighters rescued pretend victims and children dove under school desks for cover during a citywide disaster drill Wednesday in India's congested, quake-vulnerable capital of 16.7 million people.
It was the first-ever earthquake drill for New Delhi, where poorly constructed buildings, loosely hanging electrical wires and narrow alleys that encourage traffic would mean heavy damage in a major earthquake.
Nine out of 10 buildings are at risk of moderate or significant damage if either of two nearby faults release a quake of around magnitude 7 or higher, the city says. Shaking might intensify if waters from the nearby Yamuna River slosh onto land and turn the subsoil to jelly.
"This is to prepare and see our strength and infrastructure," firefighter Atul Garg said. "We have to see our strength ... and to educate the people."
Officials staged disaster scenarios including freeway collapses and damage at hospitals. Water and food security departments practiced organizing supply distributions. Some offices and markets were evacuated. Metro trains ground to a halt for more than a half-hour. Dogs sniffed out people posing as survivors, and medics tended to fake wounds.
Fake smoke was released throughout New Delhi's municipal headquarters where more than 200 police, firefighters and medics scrambled to carry people out on stretchers and to guide crowds of workers, some screaming or clutching rags to their mouths, down smoke-filled stairwells and out of exits.
Traffic backed up in many areas as cars were diverted as part of the drill.
The exercise marked a strong shift by the city government in its readiness to address earthquake preparations, after five decades of relatively little progress in heeding warnings and following recommendations. Meanwhile, the population has more than tripled, and each year tens of thousands of housing units are built with substandard material, floors above the legal limit and no earthquake safety checks.
Many Delhi buildings were damaged in a 6.8-magnitude quake in March 1999, unleashed by the 310-mile (500-kilometer) Central Himalayan Gap between Nepal and India. Geologists say enough new pressure has built up again that a tectonic shift today could cause an 8.7-magnitude earthquake.
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