Preventing the Worst
by Dennis Walikainen '92/09
Suppose the people of Haiti had known that the earth might buckle beneath them as it did January 12. Could the outcome have been any different? Almost certainly, according to faculty and students in Michigan Tech's Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences.
Poverty-stricken countries such as Haiti may not be able to implement building codes like those that enabled quake-hardened Chile endure far fewer casualties while weathering a much more powerful trembler. Nevertheless, small changes can still make a difference in how well nations in the developing world face natural disasters.
Bill Rose, a professor of petrology, has spent decades studying volcanoes in the developing world and seen many villages built on their slopes, in the shadow of annihilation. He soon realized that it's unrealistic for entire communities to pack up and move on the chance of an eruption a hundred years down the road. But, he reasoned, they needed to be prepared to save themselves if the worst were to become real.
Their plight prompted Rose to initiate what would become Michigan Tech's Peace Corps Master's International Program in Natural Hazards Mitigation. The three-year master's degree program includes a two-year field experience abroad as a Peace Corps volunteer. In addition to volcanoes, student volunteers in the program address natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, landslides, and droughts.
"We try to reduce vulnerability," says Rose. "We can tell people what may happen, and we can help save lives; we increase awareness and the ability of people to save themselves."
The Peace Corps master's program is supported in part by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation's Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE) program, which also funds doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students pursuing traditional master's degrees. Their work is a rich mix of research and community service, ranging from seismic monitoring and tracking volcanic gases to collaborating with Ecuadorean officials searching for new water supplies in an age of global warming.
"We are also working with social scientists and communications experts to help us understand how people perceive hazards," says John Gierke, acting chair of geological and mining engineering and sciences and director of the PIRE program at Tech. "It's a new model we are trying to build in terms of graduate education."
John Lyons, who earned his Peace Corps Master's International in Natural Hazards Mitigation and is now a PhD candidate in geology, did his Peace Corps service in Guatemala. Although better known for its volcanic hazards, Guatemala is home to numerous earthquakes, says Lyons.
He began his work in local schools. "They had no earthquake education or planning," Lyons recalls. "So we went through the basics with the teachers first—how earthquakes occur and what to do in the event of an earthquake. Then we taught their students about earthquakes and ran their first earthquake drills."
Volunteers can teach simple things that students can do on their own, Lyons says, such as "getting under desks or in door frames instead of running down the hallway or pushing toward exits."
The recurring challenge is getting people to take impending threats seriously, says Erika Vye, a PhD student in geology whose studies are being supported through PIRE. When disasters only happen every century or so, they don't stay in the forefront of the locals' minds like an annual flood might. That's not surprising, she said. "We are normally reactionary, instead of thinking about what could happen." That challenge is compounded in very poor counties such as Haiti, where people struggle to meet their most basic needs. "Hunger takes precedence," Vye says.
When catastrophe does bring risk into focus, that is the time to "jump in and see what we could have done," using the opportunity to prepare for the next big one, whether it's five or fifty years down the road. Michigan Tech's PIRE program allows that to happen, says Vye. "We've got all these students with all this international experience. They go abroad and bring back stories, and no one place is the same as the others. We learn a lot from each other."
Before coming to Tech, she shadowed a local development organization in the Himalayas while it implemented a textbook-perfect earthquake remediation program. The experience taught her reams about what works and why, which she will apply as she conducts her doctoral research in Central America.
"The key is preparedness and mitigation, especially in rural areas," she says. "In India, we even worked with masons to make buildings more earthquake resistant."
Those lessons can be applied in Haiti, says Assistant Professor Greg Waite.
"Buildings can be retrofitted to become more seismically stable," he says. "In some buildings, even wooden support bars in walls will help resist cave-ins." Roofs can be tightened down, and there can be "simple and cheap fixes."
"Haiti is particularly frustrating because a lot of people knew that an earthquake would happen—not 'if' but 'when,'" Waite adds. "You have to design the structures accordingly, in addition to other hazard mitigation and prevention measures."
It's hard to imagine any good coming out of the earthquake in Haiti. But Rose hopes it might.
"The disaster might lead to better earthquake engineering," says Rose, "where structures can be rebuilt to withstand quakes for another hundred years or more, and even if they receive some damage, they won't collapse like they did."
Building better hospitals, schools, and other places where people congregate is especially important. "It will cost more, but it will be worth it."
It will also afford geologists a sense of satisfaction to rival the joys of scientific discovery.
"The increase in populations in hazardous areas has changed the habits of geologists," Rose adds. "We used to go out in the woods alone and come back later with a load of rocks and a map, then stay in town just long enough to find the next spot in the woods.
"Now we have to communicate with people to be sure they understand. We call it social geology. It feels good, and the world needs it."