QUITO, ECUADOR – 11:12 AM, APRIL 24, 2016 As we fly into Quito, the capital of Ecuador, the high mountain scene opens up below. Wispy clouds drift...
7:02 am – April 25, 2016 I awake to pounding at the thin wood door of my jungle hotel. Opening it, groggy, I find a slender woman...
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Yangon, Myanmar – We are driving up to a destroyed water pipeline on a bumpy, 200-year-old, British-made highway. I am in the middle of the Myanmar jungle. It is about 40°C (104°F) and dusty and hot. It is still the dry season here. Both sides of the highway have low-lying bushes, palm trees and occasional villages with a golden pagoda. People are friendly with quick smiles.
Our team part of a government mission to investigate an earthquake-damaged water supply chain. A municipal engineer informed us that the above-ground water pipeline is about 50 km long (31 miles) and that 400 of the supports have been damaged. We bump through four hours each way on a dusty country road highway.
Yesterday was different. We made a final presentation in the Shangri-La Hotel to the government officials to close a $120 million loan. Part of the funds will be used to seismically upgrade 12 key structures in Yangon. In an air-conditioned conference room, we talked about the seismic damage and fatality risk of 12 key structures and the cost benefit based on lives saved. From years of doing this, our capacity in the probabilistic risk-identification field has become bar none. We can quantify the seismic risk so finance people and the public can understand how to deal with it and why it’s so important.
Our little van has finally arrived at the Gyobyu Reservoir. It is located in the Taikkyi area, where a M-5.8 earthquake hit on March 13, 2017. A 56-inch-diameter iron pipe was laid over half eroded concrete supports spaced 25 feet apart. Each pipe is also about 25 feet connected with a coupler. A municipal engineer shows me some cracked supports. He says there are 479 supports that are damaged or about 5 percent of all supports. This reservoir pipeline is critical. It is the only source of water to Yangon’s city center.
Local workers are already replacing the damaged supports when we arrive. Together, we sketch up replacement details. We figure that they can replace all of the supports at a cost of $8 million. That sounds like a lot, but it isn’t when you think about it. Just $8 million to reduce the very significant earthquake risk to the entire drinking water supply of Myanmar. I promise the municipal engineer I will bring this up to the government.
A typical day out on a mission – nothing adventurous. Just a working day, sharing the knowledge we’ve gained. I know that this day in the little van for eight hours on a dusty, bumpy road may make all the difference to the people in Myanmar someday when an even larger earthquake hits and they still have water.
As we fly into Quito, the capital of Ecuador, the high mountain scene opens up below. Wispy clouds drift over patches of vivid green fields. My eyes are tired from the 10-hours “red eye” flight from San Francisco, but the beauty of the Cordillera de los Andes mountains is undeniable. They remind me of ragged mountain ranges that I’ve seen many times before.
This is earthquake country.
We step into a new, modern airport; clean but not too busy. The people look Spanish with Inca ancestry here and there.
Members of our team await us, including Juan Salvador, a structural engineer from Colombia. I met him a year ago in Bogota. It is really nice to see a familiar face when you step into a new country. Arcesio Ortiz Ballesteros, a civil engineer from Quito, who is a director of engineers and architects charged with building a new city northeast of Quito, has volunteered to help us. He arrives with a car filled with water, food and other things we may need. He first learned of us two years ago and has followed our work ever since. I jokingly said, “I guess it is bad news that I am in your country!” He grinned with his pleasantly tanned face.
Some coastal area communities are 80 percent destroyed
A phone rings. It’s a colonel with Ecuador’s Army Corps of Engineers, whose team first contacted us through Facebook. “Wait at the airport. I’ll meet you there,” he says. Charged with leading the recovery effort in the disaster zone, he’s eager to hear about how our work responding to large, catastrophic earthquakes in other countries might apply to Ecuador.
We huddle around a table in the busy coffee shop, listening to his immense challenges. Some coastal area communities are 80 percent destroyed. Some of the smaller coastal communities have not even been reached yet. It is apparent that the assessments need to have better organization. Not everyone is well-trained. Bodies still buried beneath the rubble pose serious health issues. His eyes light up when I describe how we trained 600 engineers in Haiti to ATC-20 standards and formed teams with mechanisms for oversight. He picks up his Blackberry and arranges a military flight to whisk us to Manta; the center of devastation. He directs us to meet with the ministry leader of each area, using his name for access.
Forty minutes later, the cool wind blows across our faces as we wait on a military airfield. The passing refugees are like tides, some coming and some going. Some are tired and red-eyed, arriving from communities left in rubble. Others, like a public health worker carrying two large water jugs that nearly outweigh her, are boarding the plane with us to offer help.
We’re off to the center of destruction.
7:02 am – April 25, 2016
I awake to pounding at the thin wood door of my jungle hotel. Opening it, groggy, I find a slender woman in a gray dress standing there. Her hair is wet. “The mayor is waiting for you. You have to see him at 8 o’clock,” she says, in a mix of English and Spanish. “Levántate!” calls out my roommate, Juan.
We had no prior contact with the mayor of Portoviejo, one of the worst damaged cities in Ecuador. But this is how it always starts: a call.
We meet at the radio station next door to the funky, thatched-roof lodgings we call our “hotel.” While right next to the modern downtown, it’s more like a commune in the jungle, and many of the guests seem to live here. Guests are a mix of stranded locals and international aid workers. Nonetheless, with its strong Ecuadorian coffee in the morning, cold local beer at night and spotty internet, it’s a haven of sorts in the midst of this urban earthquake disaster.
The mayor looks exactly like you’d expect in a remote Ecuadorean coastal town. Slicked, combed-back gray and black hair. Thoughtful. A nicely pressed shirt tucked into his trim waistband. He wants to know more about our experience responding to earthquake disasters as he explores how we can help him. I tell him that there are “many similarities in disaster recovery processes for urban disasters. Some do well. Some screw things up pretty badly.”
He is quick and direct: “I need your advice. I think our engineers are doing a good job, but I want to compare our findings to another expert opinion. Some tell me most of buildings need to be taken down. I want to know if it is true or if my town can be saved. If you tell me we need to take everything down, I will. But I need to know.” He promptly sends us to the city’s former airfield, now a staging area for orange-vested disaster first responders.
Stern, husky policemen motion us through barricades to a small area where officers are flanked in neat lines. Their superior shouts out an explanation of who we are and our mission. Two officers step forward to volunteer, one more senior than the other. They introduce themselves with curt nods and broad smiles.
Portoviejo’s once vibrant downtown with 223,000 souls is now a fenced-off, 40-block Red Zone. Over 200 people died here when the earthquake hit at 7 p.m. on a Saturday. I look out into the street ahead of us. A broken, 8 -story tower tilts precariously over the debris-strewn street like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, only infinitely more dangerous. It could collapse at any minute.
We split into two teams to conduct our assessment, walking block to block as the tropical sun beats unmercifully down on us. Humidity is like 80 percent. But a silver lining: the damage is not as bad as advertised. 50 to 60 percent of buildings are not damaged; roughly 30 percent have only slight damage; Ten to 20 percent are badly damaged or have collapsed. As we pass, various owners extracting valuables from their businesses stop us, “Can you check my building? Not sure how bad it is. Need a technical opinion. Por favor. Si se pueden.”
Scores of stairs are climbed. Eight floors. Three floors. Ten more floors to the terrace. My “earthquake shoes” crunch on fallen plaster, bricks and glass; headlamps needed to pass through the darkness. I essentially own one pair of shoes: Ecco shoes. I use them for everything from responding to disasters to meeting prime ministers – after cleaning them up a little. They are perfect for my luggage: small.
We enter Portoviejo’s badly damaged Municipal Building, which includes the mayor’s own office. Gaping holes replace entire walls, especially in the stairwell, which looks like a war zone. It looks like a gigantic explosion happened there. Entire offices hang open to the outside world – desks, filing cabinets and coffeemakers hanging on for dear life.
It looks terrible, but the truth is, this is all repairable. The concrete columns remain intact. None of the damage, although substantial, is structural. As we leave, a young man in a bright blue shirt runs across the street to intercept us. “I hate to bother you, but…” can we assess his school? Classes for 400 students are supposed to start in a few weeks and no one knows how to move forward. Can we look at the damage? It would be so appreciated.
Downstairs, the few cracks observed are superficial and the concrete columns are solid. Upstairs, the interior wall damage is horrifying. A brick wall dividing classrooms fell and smashed the desk of a teacher and some students. What if it wasn’t Saturday? What if class had been in session? This could have been 10 a.m. on a Monday.
We venture deeper into the Red Zone. Heavy machinery with mechanical claws pull down entire buildings. We pass a communications company flattened by the earthquake. The mayor summons us via our trusted police companion, Officer Zambrano, who is armed with a walkie-talkie. We begin to leave when another desperate person approaches, pointing to his building. It looks undamaged except that the entire fourth level of the building next door toppled onto his roof. The police want us to go, but, like always, I want to help this man.
We crunch upstairs through more glass and plaster. Inside, is a beautiful apartment with impressive furniture. Next to the bed sits a photo of the man and his kids. He opens a back room where toppled building has punched through six inches of concrete and buried its head in his ceiling. It hangs by steel threads.
And yet his structural system is intact. I tell him,” This is all repairable. Your main structural system is intact. “ He sighs, relieved, and smiles widely. He sees direction and hope now. This is what people need in a disaster.
We arrive at a campus that has become a command center. Dell computers, copy machines and paper cover every surface. They bring a young planning director to us who immediately, in rapid-fire fashion, spends eight minutes spelling out everything they’ve done and plan to do. He’s very intelligent and motivated. I compliment the job they are doing, their organization, the maps showing damage. “But you have this huge red zone going on,” I say. “This could prolong reconstruction and really hurt your downtown, perhaps indefinitely.” I brought up Italy 2008 and Christchurch 2011, where the city barely exists anymore. Too long of a red-zone period is not a good thing.
The Vice Mayor shows up unexpectedly. I tell him the same story. “Government alone can’t fix this town. The private sector must carry the majority of the burden of recovery and reconstruction. If the government helps private owners to do their job, they will do it. “Andale!” he says. “This is exactly what we are thinking.” He already had a plan to shrink the red zone, but unsafe areas caused by falling buildings and objects must be identified and cordoned.
He asks us to come back tomorrow at 8 a.m. to strategize their most dangerous areas. I kindly tell him that, “No, I can not do the work. But I would be more than happy to work with your engineers tomorrow, so they can learn and take it from there.”
To me, this is the heart and soul of disaster reconstruction: work with locals to build their capacity, so they can do it. It is a subtle, but crucial, strategy. Building capacity in disaster-stricken communities creates jobs and the knowledge base. We lose so much in disaster. Why not add something back?
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It’s 1 am in the morning. Dogs are barking. I am super tired. Four weeks ago, in the wee hours of a Haitian Saturday morning while I was fending off insects and obsessively trying to get through the last pages of my book, an earthquake struck Nepal.
My phone lit up with the news, and a ping notified me of an email, which read: “This is a big one. Are you ready?” It was from Kit Miyamoto.
Ten days later, I was on the plane on a one-way ticket to Kathmandu. Miyamoto International and the nonprofit Miyamoto Relief, for which I work, dispatched a team of structural engineers to Nepal within 48 hours of the disaster.
We’re earthquake engineers and while others might only think about earthquakes when mega disasters happen, we spend our days talking about building resilience and working to convince our clients and partners to engineer buildings, particularly schools, to meet at least the minimum building code requirements – life safety – every day.
My first impression of Kathmandu is that the needs here are tremendous. Little colorful, makeshift tents dot Kathmandu city. Families, many with little children, are petrified of returning to their homes, where cracks line the walls like open wounds.
The earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, including two really big ones, have left scars on the city. Here and there you come across partially or fully collapsed buildings, surrounded by rubble. Buildings that still stand are lined with vertical, horizontal and sometimes diagonally crossed cracks.
I am scared to enter these buildings, even with a hard hat and a team of structural engineers by my side. Having responded to dozens of earthquakes, they inform me that many of the cracks are superficial and have not jeopardized the structural integrity of the buildings. I have lost count of the high number of aftershocks that have taken place since I arrived – and then a big one hits: magnitude 7.3. I’ll never forget the sound of a building collapsing in the near distance.
I carried a Nepalese girl out of the building I was in at the time. She was so scared she threw herself on me, slinging her arms and legs around me. I am not very tall by western standards, but here I can be likened to a giant.
The ancient homes we enter to assess for safety have these tiny little entry doors, and low hanging ceilings – not made for giants like me. These homes have been built over generations and, often times, are the only assets of these families. These buildings are their homes.
It breaks the hearts of our engineers to tell these families that their home is not safe to occupy; that they will need to find some other place to sleep – which often times means outdoors, on the street. Earthquake cracks expose broken brick walls posing falling hazards that can injure adults or kill kids. Or sometimes the walls have shifted or bend inwards or outwards, ready for collapse.
But our engineers also provide hope in these stressful times. Many of the damages can be repaired. Much of the damage is not as bad as it may seem and these homes are safe to re-enter. As Dr. Miyamoto says: “Our job here is to give the people confidence again.” Without technical knowledge, people are at a loss – helpless. We tell them 1) whether or not buildings are safe to enter, 2) if the damage can be repaired or 3) if the buildings are deemed irreparable.
When the 7.3-magnitude aftershock shook Nepal last Tuesday, the people who fled out of buildings, huddling together on the streets, were all on phones desperately trying to reach loved ones to let them know that they were safe, and to be assured that their loved ones have been saved. I cannot help but miss my own family tonight. I hope that they know how important they are to me, despite that I have not connected with them since arriving in Kathmandu.
Being part of a team that can provide direction and hope makes all the efforts (and sleeplessness) worth it. I admire the Nepalese people, who despite these immense challenges are able to smile.
A team from Miyamoto was on the ground in Nepal within days of the April 25th Gorka Earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people. In Dr. H. Kit Miyamoto’s latest journal entries, he encounters flattened schools, a request to trek to the Everest base camp and angry protesters on a mountain road.
We are driving fast through burning roadblocks. People are upset and demonstrating. Food and water has not reached this remote part of country yet. It is one of the least developed districts in Nepal. When one of the roadblocks forces us to stop, one of protesters approaches me to apologize. “I am so sorry to stop the traffic. But we are making a statement to the government. We need food, water and tents as soon as possible.” Then he invited me to his camp, to share his “meager dinner.” This is probably the most respectable protester I have ever met.
I am sleeping average of 2.5 hours for the last four days. We start early and end super late. Then people in the U.S. wake up and there are daily Skype interviews and reports to write until after midnight. It’s a battlefield of adrenaline. I don’t feel much fatigue.
Our assessment team in Nepal so far is me, Sandeep and Manis. Sandeep Shah is from our Miyamoto India office and Manis is our Nepalese structural engineer partner. He ran one of the largest companies with 30 people in Kathmandu.
Manis drives a little red Honda through the city. The town is empty and all the stores are closed with not much action. The apartments above the stores are all vacant. The population essentially fled the town for fear of the next earthquake. We notice a large modern complex of a high-rise condominium building along the dusty road. As we approach the complex, we see large gashes and cracks on many of the walls. Some of walls are totally missing with furniture exposed inside. I hope no one fell with it. A small lady sitting by the curbside asks me, “I am living in this house next door. Can I go back to live in my house?” All of us decide to go into the gut of this building to see if there is structural damage. I tell our guys, “We should get in fast and get out – and watch your head.”