April 6th, 2009 at 3:32 am

While most were sleeping, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the Abruzzo region of central Italy. The epicenter is located approximately 7 km northwest of L’Aquila, approximately 85 km northeast of Rome. L’Aquila is comprised primarily of Baroque and Renaissance era architecture and sits upon a hillside in a narrow valley.

Kit Miyamoto, CEO of Miyamoto International, and Peter Yanev, Director of Global Risk Miyamoto (GRM), traveled to the site to collect data on earthquake effects related to historical buildings, investigate damage to industrial facilities for our clients, and to gather information to promote impactful changes to building codes and construction practices in high earthquake risk communities worldwide.

We at Miyamoto International and GRM believe that we can collectively make a positive impact to minimize the human and financial losses from earthquakes. Please allow us to share the personal journal entries from Mr. Miyamoto. Building awareness is the first step.

April 13, Arrival


I got here after a 15 hour KLM flight from Tokyo, where I was on vacation with my family and doing research at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. I met up with an Italian engineer, Ilbe Salvaterra, from our partner company, Global Risk Consultants at the Rome airport at 9:30 pm. It is always nice to have a good local engineer on our reconnaissance team to investigate a disaster area. Ilbe rented a car and we drove to the town of Tivoli. This is a beautiful resort town with a lot of green rolling hills and strong smell of sulfur. It is about 25 km northeast of Rome and 60 km to the epicenter near L’Aquila. 60 km is close enough to commute to and far enough to be safe from large aftershocks. We got to the hotel at 10:30 pm and met Peter Yanev, the third member of our team from our Lafayette, California office. Peter arrived in the late afternoon and was enjoying many glasses of Italian wine while waiting for us. We had a difficult time finding a restaurant since today was the Monday after Easter and everything was closed. After a simple dinner, I went back to my hotel room and corresponded with California until 3 am. This is not an easy job.

April 14, L’Aquila, Epicenter

Our view from the vehicle as we approach the epicenter

After 4 hours of sleep, all three of us met at the hotel lobby at 8:30 am, took a quick breakfast, and left forL’Aquila. We drove on a modern, but somewhat bumpy highway through a beautiful countryside of green rugged hills covered with olive trees and dotted with ancient villages.  Earthquake country almost always looks the same – beautiful ragged, but peaceful mountains.  This was true inSichuan,China;Sumatra,Indonesia;Romania,Japan, andCalifornia.  Unfortunately, these peaceful places will turn to hell in an instance without warning.

Approaching the high peaks that reminded us of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in California.

The scenery changed to higher mountains with steep terrain. I saw white topped mountains. The mountains here go up to 3000 meters. These ranges look like the high peaks of our Sierra Nevada inCalifornia. The differences fromCaliforniaare the many ancient villages perched on top of smaller hills in valleys. It is astonishingly beautiful.

11 13 am, N 42.34639   E 13.35489

We stopped at a gas station for a quick rest right before the epicenter.  Peter noticed a few concrete benches had moved laterally about 0.5 inch or so by the earthquake. The disaster zone was getting closer. We drove intoL’Aquila.

 11:25 am N 42.35884    E 13.38147

Moment Frame system allowed the earthquake and gravity forces to flow to the ground.

We witnessed the first major earthquake damage along the road near the highway exit. A 4-story concrete apartment building that did not collapse, but masonry walls at the first and second floors had crumbled to the ground. In this area, many residential and commercial buildings have a concrete-beam-and-column system to carry both gravity and earthquake forces to the ground. We call this a moment frame system. The spaces between the beams and columns are then filled with unreinforced masonry to create the architectural walls. Unfortunately and unknowing to the builder, these walls stiffened this building and took almost all earthquake forces. But the walls were not engineered for it and collapsed. This damage rendered the building inhabitable. This is a well known phenomenon; which again injured and killed a score of people in this earthquake.


12:05 pm

We parked our car at the army and police guard gate, which goes to the old town center. I saw much local TV coverage that showed intense damage in this area. Since the buildings in this area were so unstable and dangerous, the whole old city center was off limit to unauthorized personnel. A fire chief stopped us and asked us to come back later today to investigate the cordoned area.


12:35 pm. N 42.35829 E 13.39738

We drove up to a hill top residential area that we had spotted damaged buildings.  It appeared that buildings at hilltops were more severely damaged than ones in the low lands. Peter Yanev explained that this effect is focusing.  At hilltops, earthquake energy can be intensified or focused.  I observed this in the 2007 Sumatra earthquake.

We saw dozens of midrise buildings with damage ranging from collapsed infill walls to minor cracking. We also saw many brick houses, where the wall corners cracked and collapsed.  Corners are dangerous areas for brick construction. Walls from orthogonal directions restrained each other and cause failure.

Just as we were about to drive away, I spotted a collapsed building pile.  Locals told us that it was a 3-story building.  The building was constructed of unreinforced brick walls supporting concrete floors – one of the most dangerous building types throughout the world. I saw the same building system killed thousands of school children in 2008Sichuan,Chinaearthquake. Different country, but the same dangerous building type kills many.


1:35 pm:  N 42.33149 E 13.38747

We met a couple of professors from the local L’Aquila University. Peter knew them from UC Berkeley.  We followed their cars to their engineering school at the top of hill. They told us that there was major damage to their school buildings. This campus is located at one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The hill is surrounded by snow capped mountains and green valleys.

The professors showed us a modern 4-story concrete structure built about 10 years ago. I was able to see some wall damage from the outside. I then decided to investigate the interior. Peter and Ilbe followed.  Then in came an architect who told us that he was the architect of record for this building.

There was incredible destruction inside. Many architectural concrete masonry walls collapsed. So did suspended ceilings. Simply, there were no connections or braces to stabilize these walls and ceilings. Debris rained on to the ground level lobby where many students would gather during the day.  I saw one concrete masonry wall collapsed onto the students desks. This wall was a party wall between class rooms.  If this earthquake had happened when class was in session, it would have killed many students.  I saw terror in the architect’s eyes.

The building didn’t have much structural concrete frame damage, but we as engineers  failed the public that it was suppose to protect. In the midst of this damage was a continuous eerie alarm that echoed in this abandoned building.

We next entered the older faculty building. We were told that this 5-story building was built in the 1930s. I saw less architectural damage in this older building. It was constructed of concrete frame with infill masonry walls. These walls helped to dampen the earthquake forces. One of the professors went up stairs with us. He led us to his old office at the third level where the infill wall was heavily damaged and collapsed on his desk. He removed his young son’s picture from the wall and we soon departed.

We now are heading back to the cordoned old city center where many buildings collapsed, including a modern student dormitory.

The Hotel Montana: Once an iconic, four-star meeting place for Haitians, foreigners, spies and tourists, the locally owned hotel was utterly leveled by the Jan 12 earthquake. All that is left is broken concrete, twisted metal and the stench of decaying bodies.

Waking up in post-earthquake Haiti has challenges and opportunities. We’re here to help rebuild in a safe and sustainable manner — and today we’ll have two examples of that great task that faces us, the Haitian people, the United Nations, and the international community, as a whole.

This morning, two government representatives came by our Petionville house. One is a senior official and the other is an adviser to President Rene Preval. Our discussion turns to a topic of great importance: schoolchildren.

I sit with my colleagues Lon and Guilaine as the official opens his briefcase and spreads out a set of architectural plans. As he opens them he says, “This is a prototypical plan for 28 schools that we want to build this year … but this plan was developed prior to the earthquake and we are quite concerned.”

They have every reason for concern. It’s been reported that 30 percent of the schools in Port au Prince collapsed in the quake. Personally, I’ve yet to see one school left standing.

Looking at the plans, flashes of collapsed schools and the stench of death spring to mind. I just can’t believe what I am seeing — there are absolutely no earthquake-resisting elements!

The typical classroom is designed as a concrete block floor with concrete toppings over concrete beams — all supported by small, concrete columns. It’s almost identical to the design that failed, causing so many schoolchildren to die in January. Basically, it was a house of cards.

Frustrated and sad, I tell them, “This structural system is totally dangerous. You must re-engineer this. The small columns at the corner of each classroom must be converted to be part of moment frames. It is not a drastic architectural change, but will have substantial impact on the safety and survival of students.”

They seem to understand the points I’m making. The presidential adviser, added, “I understand your concern. I myself can see what’s going on. And we need to build (the schools) as soon as we can. Many schools are collapsed and kids need classrooms.”

Having spent the morning concerned about keeping school kids safe, our afternoon was almost even more profound when we met Nadine.

Hotel Montana before January 12, 2010: A four-star hotel a popular meeting place for tourist and government spies.

Nadine Cardoso-Riedl is an owner of the now-collapsed Hotel Montana, a landmark building located on a prominent hill in Port au Prince.

Once known for its peaceful grounds and four-star service, it is no more. Now the hotel is reduced to a pile of concrete and twisted metal with the stench of still-decaying bodies trapped inside, all guarded by the US Army. About 200 people are estimated to have died in the collapse, while 132 were rescued.

The team passes through security to meet Nadine at the front of a conference hall (the only structure in the complex that survived the quake). She joins us as we inspect a nearby apartment building to see if it’s structurally safe to reoccupy. Relieved that it is, she asks us to join her for lunch.

She and her family serve a swiftly prepared spaghetti. As we all settle in, Guilaine leans to me and says, “Kit, Nadine was buried alive for four days under five levels of concrete. She was miraculously found by the rescue crew from Columbia. She also lost her sister’s grandchild in the earthquake. He was only five years old, and a cute little fellow. He was visiting that fateful day.”

Guilaine continues, “And you should know that Nadine was kidnapped for ransom a few years ago, too. Now she’s lost everything. Her hotel was her life. This family has gone through an incredible ordeal.”

The earthquake is only part of this family’s tragedy? It’s a lot to process over a lunch.

Without missing a beat, though, Nadine tells me, “I have a vision to rebuild this place.” I can hardly believe the spirit she’s showing.

“I consider myself lucky,” she says. “I am hurt but I can get proper medical care. I was downtown today. Our people are living in makeshift tents. They don’t have anything.”

She stares into the distance. My eyes are on her, admiring her strength. She and her family are going through this hellish experience, yet she talks of vision and hope?

She turns slowly to me with her clear, brown eyes … and smiles.

Believe me, that was the hard way. But looking back, it was one of the best decisions we had ever made. We selected 16 contractors and trained them in technology and business. We specified materials from local suppliers—Haitian-made. Contractors hired masons from the pool that we had trained. These folks eventually repaired an average yellow-tagged house in four days using a four-person team, which was overseen by an MTPTC engineer as per international standards. It cost about $2,000 per house total, which was less expensive than the infamous T-Shelters, and it provided a permanent solution. In addition, the repaired walls had 300 percent stronger capacity than previous ones did.

It was a massive operation. At any given moment, we had 1,000 masons in the field, with projects run by 16 contractors and 40 young but brilliant MTPTC engineers. A small cohort of Miyamoto engineers were again spread out in the field for quality-control management. Eventually, we hired some Haitian engineers to become Miyamoto engineers. Miyamoto managers Guilaine Victor and Karyne Raymond, two Haitian women, essentially managed all these masons, suppliers and contractors. These women are smart, hardworking and no-nonsense. My hat is off to them. The project became a true Haitian operation and machine. Near the end, we were repairing an astonishing 1,000 houses per month in multiple communities.

The Yellow House Repair Program partnered with many organizations: PADF, UNOPS, USAID, OFDA and Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Caterpillar, the American Red Cross, the European Union, Adoration Christian Centre and Chemonics International. This team repaired 9,902 houses in 16 different communities. As of November 2012, it had made a positive impact on 14,952 households and 104,664 people.

These activities affected entire communities. It was estimated that more than 40,000 additional houses were voluntarily repaired by the owners themselves. Those 16 small contractors weren’t so small anymore. One company that I knew grew from two people to a 100-person operation. Their business was strong and provided a lot of jobs.

Over the 30 months of the project, we had not lost anyone because of accidents, and no one had been kidnapped. That was almost a miracle, considering the places we had been—dangerous, poverty–stricken areas. Overall, this operation was to become known as one of the most successful programs that had ever been implemented in Haiti.

Back at the Kinam Hotel, I was able to talk to each of the 40 engineers and thank them for what they had done. I told them how people were proud of them and how the country is thankful to them. I said, “Don’t leave this country. You are the future, and your fellow citizens really need you. We, Miyamoto as a Haitian company, will be here as long as we can add value to people’s lives.”

It was an emotional night, bittersweet. It had been a job well done, but I needed to disassemble this great program. I would miss all the people involved. The commercial and public investment sectors were robust in Haiti now. We were working on normal projects: office buildings, schools, hospitals, churches. We even installed new high-tech devices—seismic dampers and isolators—in some critical structures there. I guess we were evolving as Haiti was evolving.

I love this place and its people.

We assessed each house and marked it with a green, yellow or red tag, and recorded detailed structural and social information using the PDAs. We not only performed engineering tasks, but we also became counselors and social workers. People were starting to go home to safe, green-tagged houses. The temporary camp population was down to 700,000 in late 2010.

We figured that the amount of debris that existed in the country, based on the database that we had developed, was 8.9 million cubic meters (314 million cubic feet). Based on this estimate, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and USAID came up with a plan to take care of the debris.

We identified over 120,000 yellow-tagged houses with limited damage. They were still dangerous but relatively easy to repair. The famous Yellow House Repair Program originated here. During this program’s initial assessment, we identified more than 80,000 collapsed or heavily damaged buildings, which were red-tagged. Some NGOs started working to remove these buildings. This program won a Project of the Year award from UNOPS and the World Bank. This was not a job for everyone. We were often spread out in unstable and dangerous communities, but sometimes even notorious gang members helped to guide the engineers. Often, a disaster brings out the best in people. Haiti was no exception.

The next step was reconstruction. In early 2011, we were still struggling with the situation: over 700,000 homeless people and a staggering amount of debris and half-collapsed buildings. No one knew where to start. We finally came up with the idea of “picking low-hanging fruit” as a reconstruction strategy. The target was 120,000 yellow-tagged houses. They were damaged, but we discovered that they were repairable. Funded by PADF and USAID OFDA, we formulated a repair program, much like we had done for the damage assessment program. Our experience of working in impoverished Haitian communities for the past 12 months was key. By this time, I had started to understand what made people tick. I became a cultural anthropologist of sorts.

First we developed an MTPTC-approved guideline for seismic damage repair per international standards. Based on that guideline, we trained a team of master masons and engineering managers. We even flew in an American master mason from San Diego to train the first batch of mason trainers. Train the trainers—that was the best way to build a solid foundation. Over 6,000 masons and 600 engineers were eventually trained that way.

Next, we selected small commercial contractors to work on this program. This was unusual in Haiti. Usually, NGOs hired masons and laborers directly, or brought in international volunteers, skipping the commercial sector. Then, guest what? Good-intentioned, well-funded, non-profit organizations were directly competing against local businesses. That is how Haiti lost many of its industries, including its agricultural businesses. It was not easy to compete against “free rice.” This standard practice unintentionally had created a society that could not sustain itself without continual foreign aid. The commercial sector was destroyed and jobs were hard to find. Unemployment was over 80 percent. We wanted to do something different: invest in and train small Haitian commercial contractors and help them grow.

Find out how hiring local contractors made a difference. Read Part 3 of “Thirty Months in Haiti”

IMG_0447-1I just finished giving a speech at the Kinam Hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The audience applauded enthusiastically. I felt good, elevated. I had spoken to more than 100 attendees, including MTPTC (the Haitian Public Works Ministry) engineers, ministry directors, nongovernmental organization (NGO) partners and the media. This event was to celebrate the achievements of the MTPTC engineers since the 2010 earthquake.

I have had probably more than 50 speaking engagements each year for the last several years, for many different types of audiences, and giving speeches has become somewhat routine. Sometimes it feels like I am just going through the motions—but not this time. It was a great audience, and my emotions were high. I had worked closely with these people for the past 30 months. They were my colleagues, friends and students. These young Haitian engineers had worked hard to save their country after an unprecedented disaster. Although they had been totally unprepared, Haitians had stepped up and proved the world wrong about their abilities.

I had met these 40 engineers 30 months ago in a temporary meeting shack for MTPTC. The official ministry building had been lost after the earthquake. It was March 2010. We were being funded by UNOPS and the World Bank to develop and execute a program to assess the overall structural damage caused by a devastating magnitude 7 earthquake.

The Haiti earthquake killed an estimated 300,000 people and rendered more than 1.2 million homeless. The mandate was simple: Figure out what had happened and create a reconstruction strategy. We used the well-established Applied Technology Council ATC-20 as a baseline to create an automated structural damage assessment tool. This assessment tool used a GPS to record data and download information quickly every day, so the situation could be seen in real time. This was the first time in history that such a high-tech and massive assessment program had been developed. We selected 260 top young engineers from MTPTC’s list of recent college graduates. First, I trained the trainers and managers. Then they trained the rest of the group per international standards in the classroom.

But the real training started in the field. We divided 260 engineers into 17 divisions. Each division was headed by a senior MTPTC engineer and deployed to the field in a van, with preprogrammed personal digital assistants (PDAs) in hand. A dozen Miyamoto engineers were spread out among the groups to provide on-site training and quality control. Eventually, the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) and USAID OFDA (Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance) also became partners in the project. Dan O’Neil of PADF became one of the biggest supporters and proponents of the reconstruction program.

During the first 12 months, we assessed 430,000 structures. We covered all the affected areas, from the densely populated concrete jungle of Port-au-Prince to the green fields of Léogâne. It was incredible. I lost 20 pounds just climbing the steep urban hills and damaged buildings.

The engineers on the team proved wrong the negative things that had been said about Haitians. Misconceptions about Haitians included that they were lazy and helpless, and some people had even told me that I would lose all the engineers during the World Cup or on rainy days. Guess what? These ideas were completely wrong. These were the most hardworking and passionate people with whom I have ever worked. They even showed up for work on Christmas Day and insisted on working seven days a week. Only hurricanes and political demonstrations during elections stopped them.

Our efforts paid off. Our MTPTC engineers were the first official personnel to arrive at collapsed buildings to assess damage.

To find out what happened after we arrived, subscribe to this blog and read Part 2 of “Thirty Months in Haiti”

The Citadel

August 14, 2012, Cap-Haïtien, Haiti

The shadow of a massive fortress appeared in the jungle at an elevation of 3,000 feet. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. Mr. Jolibois, director of ISPAN, a government agency that oversees heritage buildings in Haiti, was driving his ATV on the 200-year-old cobblestone trail that led up to the Citadel. The trail was filled with steep twists and turns and bumps. Antoine, ISPAN staff member, and I were in the back of the ATV, hanging on for dear life. I had better not let go of my grip, I thought, or I would fly out and fall off a 2,000-foot cliff.

The Citadelle Laferrière, the “Citadel,” is considered the eighth wonder of the world. It was built under the reign of Haitian King Christophe after the country’s independence from slavery and the French in 1804. The Citadel took 16 years to construct, and it was so massive that it acted as a deterrent to any foreign invasion. Back in the 1800s, its effect was similar to having nuclear weapons today—its mere presence was a deterrent, so it never had to be used to actively defend Haiti. The Citadel is the largest fortress in the Americas and has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Bob Glasgow (another Miyamoto engineer) and I had been joined by Mr. Jolibois and Antoine  from ISPAN at the busy Port-au-Price airport early in the morning. The place was hot and filled with people who were scrambling to be at the front of the line. Our group hopped on an old Czech Republic–made puddle jumper to Cap-Haïtien. It was classic. After we arrived in Cap-Haïtien, a short drive in a truck led us to the small town of Milot. Milot is at the base of the 3,000-foot-high Bonnet de L’Eveque mountain, which is covered with lush rainforest and houses the Citadel at its peak.

From Milot, our ATV zipped through small settlements and villages along the medieval-looking trail. Kids waved at us and yelled “Blanc!” as we drove by. “Blanc” means “foreigner” or “white.” Most of these children were half-naked because of the jungle heat, and some were playing music with carved wooden flutes. It was their job to entertain passersby for a few Haitian dollars. I love these kids. They are full of energy, despite their circumstances.

Finally, we arrived at the fortress. It measures 130 feet high, and the total area is over 10,000 square meters (100,000 square feet).The Citadel is made of granite rocks cemented together with red bricks. The bricks are similar to what I have found in Roman structures. The mortar and bricks of the Citadel looked to be in fine shape, and this structure was certainly in better condition than anything in the Roman Colosseum. Admiring the Citadel, Mr. Jolibois said, “This is the pride and history of Haiti. We are doing the best we can, but the funds are so limited. We need to look at both external and internal sources to preserve our heritage.”

Mr. Jolibois is the best guide that one could hope for. He was trained in both Haiti and Italy in architecture and archeology. He, himself, had worked on the Citadel restoration a couple decades ago. He is a walking Google search engine for anything related to Haitian history, architecture, and archeology.

The ISPAN staff then led us into the northern tip of the structure, where some cracks were visible from the exterior. Our mission was to investigate these cracks and provide strategies for repair. The area was a triangular-shaped courtyard surrounded by four-story cannon battery chambers. Massive rusted cast-iron cannons were abandoned throughout those rooms. Many of the wooden supports had rotted away, but rusted cannons still remained in their original positions. As we were going into the dark chamber, I saw large diagonal cracks on many walls. Mr. Jolibois said that the cracks may have been there since a devastating 1842 earthquake.

I told him that the pattern, location, and shape of the cracks on the wall matched typical crack patterns that we had observed in similar walls affected by earthquakes. The location and size of the cracks made sense to us. The location and shape of the chambers were stress points and could have attracted most of the earthquake damage.

We ventured out to the exterior of the massive rock walls. We didn’t see any sign of distress or movement on the outside. All the failures had originated from the 1842 earthquake. I have investigated thousands of structures damaged by earthquakes worldwide, but this was the oldest damage that I had ever encountered. It was over 170 years old!

We recommended further investigation by 3D laser scan to map all cracks, then testing and computer simulations. Quick steel shoring inside the chambers should be installed in case an earthquake hits nearby. A moderate earthquake could cause a major collapse in the weakened area, which would be a tremendous loss of Haiti’s heritage. So many historic structures were already lost in the 2010 earthquake here, and we need to act immediately.

A post-tensioned wall anchorage system and grouting are possible repair options. We plan to bring in our Italian team of experts in ancient monuments for testing and analysis, and a University of California, Berkeley, team for the laser scan. We must activate an “A Team” for one of the most important monuments in the world. I am truly fortunate to be a part of this critical team. This is Haitian history.

A dark cloud was forming overhead as the sun set. We hopped into our deadly ATV again. We stopped at a small village, where we were mobbed by kids, women, and men who wanted to sell us all kinds of artwork. There must have been at least 50 of these villagers surrounding our ATV. I don’t think that the other people in our group enjoyed these aggressive sales pitches much, but I did. I negotiated and bought two flutes and two masks for US$35 for my kids back in California.

It was not much money, but I knew that the sales income would sustain a couple families for a few days. I think that the potential tourism industry in Haiti is limitless, and it would be a key ingredient for true independence from an economy that is dominated by foreign aid.

Dusk was approaching. We drove our ATV to a small hotel by the sea. The place was truly beautiful but lonesome. The waves were gentle, and stars filled the sky. As I was thinking about my young family in California, shooting stars danced across the sky. I wished that I was able to share this beauty. Haiti is a hidden treasure, which the world will soon discover. I simply love this place and its people.

Inside a Heavily Damaged Building in Haiti

October 12, 2012

Mark Broughton and I entered a large, three-story, red-tagged concrete apartment building. A red tag means “no entry.” The structure had been damaged heavily by the 2010 earthquake and was considered too dangerous to enter. The Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) had asked us to investigate this building in Delmas 32 in Haiti as part of our ongoing housing assessments.

We have performed a lot of activities in the past two and a half years here. We have assessed the damage of over 5,000 buildings and repaired over 1,500 less-damaged yellow-tagged houses. I have special feelings about this poor, densely packed community. I have met and built relationships with many residents, masons, engineers, children and even gang members.

It was the middle of the day, and the strong Caribbean sun was right above us. We entered the dark ground floor. After my eyes had adjusted to the gloomy light of the windowless room, I looked around for damage. Strangely, I didn’t see any. We climbed to the second floor, where we found severely cracked walls and columns in empty rooms. The heat inside the apartment was unbearable, and sweat ran down my face. The peculiar odor of rotten food mixed with dust and sweat was strong in this large, dark room.

I found three columns that had been ruptured by the earthquake, which presented an immediate collapse hazard. It was a miracle that this building had remained standing for the past few years. A small, magnitude 3 event could take down the building now. There had been eight households in this building, and they had all evacuated. The former residents have been living in the Acra tent city since then, more than two and a half years now. I saw several small boys and girls playing just outside the ruptured columns. I learned that they were children from a small house next to this potential killing machine.

Repairing columns is not difficult and does not require extensive effort, but seismic strengthening also must be done. This was a large, dangerous concrete building without any seismic-resistive system. We estimate that hundreds of similar red-tagged apartments or houses still exist in Delmas 32, which is a serious social safety issue. I believe that without addressing these red-tagged structures, the community plan is incomplete.

As an example repair approach we would develop an engineering process. This involves getting approval from Public Works for the methodology and engineering, manage the process, and supervise the contractors. This operation would be highly technical and require a written proposal to develop a strategic plan to address this issue for the entire Delmas 32 area and beyond. Without this plan many people could die from small earthquakes or even midsize hurricanes, because these buildings are large and contained many households. The cost of mitigation per household or per capita would be efficient.

We should also consider a plan that includes owner financial participation rather than relying on donor money completely. We may be able to build an economically sustainable model that will provide safety, income and job growth in the community.

Mark and I hurried out of the precariously unsafe building. The longer we stayed, the higher the probability of building collapse while we were inside. We rushed out onto the dusty street into the hot afternoon sun.

Our mission is critical for the little kids and everyone else in the area. People are counting on us.

Photo: Fishermen from the village of Ofunato

Sendai, Japan (March 22, 2011) – Dr. Kit Miyamoto, the CEO of Miyamoto International, a global earthquake and structural engineering firm, reports on his experiencesin Sendai.

March 18, 2011 – As I drive into the town of Rikuzen-Takata, a scene similar to a nuclear holocaust materializes. The town was flattened by the velocity of the tsunami, and only a few concrete structures can be seen in the distance. The field is full of wood debris about 5 feet high. As I walk up to the large canal in the middle of town, which is about 200 meters wide, I cannot believe what I see. A large steel bridge that went over the canal has been washed away. Twisted metal, which was the bridge, can be seen about 200 meters upstream. The velocity and energy of the tsunami caused this.

A firefighter with a Rikuzen-Takata insignia on his uniform approaches me and says, “The first tsunami shot up the concrete riverbed and flew out into the city. No one imagined such speed and force.” He points out a three-story school with broken windows on the hill. “Many people escaped to the school. But the wave overtook the building. We found many bodies, including students, there.” I see pain in his eyes. This was the town where he and his ancestors were born and raised. It doesn’t exist any longer.

The river stretched through the town for about 6 kilometers before meeting the mountains. Everything in its path was destroyed. The river turned out to be a death sentence for this once-thriving city. The volume of the Tsunami water increased the pressure of the river and made it lethal to its neighboring dwellers.

I reach the town of Ofunato. This town was known for its fishing industry. Most of the residential areas have been preserved, but there was heavy tsunami damage in the port and industrial areas. I drive to the port to investigate. Upon arrival, I spot a couple of fishermen next to their commercial fishing boats. They motion for me to approach them.

An older man says in a heavy Tohoku accent, “Thank God you guys are here. No one has come over here for more than three days now. We no longer have any food. Can you take us to City Hall up on the hill to fetch some food so we don’t starve to death?”

As we enter City Hall, a cheerful manager welcomes us and gives them boxes of food. He says, “We received food from the central government, but we have no way to distribute it. We weren’t prepared for half of the city being destroyed.”

I drive the fishermen back to their boat. They offer me some of their food. I politely refuse. “I don’t want you guys to starve on your boat, because who knows when people will come up here again.” They laugh heartily. Great people. If anyone could overcome this incredible tragedy, it would be people from Tohoku.

IMG_1176It is interesting to see how the Japanese government is handling this unprecedented disaster. It is a textbook and total-control approach. After seven days, I still have not seen a single nonprofit organization here, not even the Red Cross. I really feel that this 400-kilometer stretch of destruction is too much for the Japanese government. I think they designed a disaster response for a fairly focused area, not for a big part of the country. Huge issues in the disaster zone and surrounding area have arisen from a lack of gasoline, food, medicine, and basic necessities. Almost all the stores, from Sendai and the surrounding unaffected cities, are still closed after one week. The primary reason is that the main freeway, “Tohoku Expressway,” has been designated by the government as only for emergency vehicles. No private-sector vehicles are allowed access, including nonprofit relief organizations, unless there is a proper permit.

A severe fuel shortage also limits people’s movements. I know people who have lined up for 3 hours to get 10 liters of gas. I met a family walking 5 miles to line up for 2 hours to buy food from a convenience store—but 95 percent of these stores were closed. I visited a refugee building location that had no power or heat. A nonprofit relief worker that I met in Tokyo told me that they had collected 4,000 liters of gasoline in Tokyo, but that they could not get permission to use the freeway to deliver it.

Empty Road ReducedI had permission to travel on the freeway. It was deserted. This disaster is too massive for a government alone to deal with. I urge the Japanese government to open freeways to northern Japan and provide fuel along the way, so that people and commerce may access the disaster zone and its surroundings. This action will save lives and speed up recovery.

March 19, 2011 – I visit the Sendai airport, which was incapacitated by a 2-meter tsunami-induced flood. I visited the beach close by and I found 6-meter-high seawalls destroyed. It was a massive, impressive concrete fortress. However, the land side of the wall had eroded heavily. All the concrete was blown away, and the interior soil was eroded and exposed. This was caused by overtopping and suction of the wave. No one had engineered the seawall to have waves go over it.

I think nature will outdo us if we are not diligent in our designs. She will come up with bigger waves and bigger earthquakes to destroy our walls, buildings, and cities. Civilization is fragile. In 90 seconds, we lost a big piece of eastern Japan. There is no power, no gas, no food, and no water. And we do not know when these things will be restored. Lives, and some communities, were lost forever. Japan is one of the most technically sophisticated nations in the world. They understand earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear energy. Even so, they were not able to sustain civilization here. The implication for the rest of world, including the United States, is significant. I think we engineers have become too arrogant and too confident about our designs and understanding of nature. This disaster proved otherwise.

I have to leave Sendai quickly. I need to present my findings at the University of Tokyo tonight. Professor Wada from my alma mater, Tokyo Institute of Technology, arranged this meeting. It will be nice to see my mentor again. As we are driving back to Tokyo on the freeway, I feel the need to stay in Sendai to help. Three hundred thousand people have lost homes and millions more do not have food or gas. I feel tremendous guilt over removing myself from this disaster. I will be back.

March 20. 2011 – As I walk out of the arrival hall at San Francisco International Airport, my wife and kids run up to meet me. My five-year-old boy hugs me tight and does not want to let me go. My mind briefly flashes to an image of a little boy who was crying in a cold, snowy town that was destroyed.

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Photo: Kesen-numa, a once-vibrant community, sits in devastation from the ravaging tsunami

Sendai, Japan (March 18, 2011) – Dr. Kit Miyamoto, the CEO of Miyamoto International, a global earthquake and structural engineering firm, reports on his experiences in Sendai.

An ancient inlet valley surrounded by snowy mountains appears before me at sunset. But the smell of oil and death burns my nose at the same time. An old fisherman approaches me and points in the distance. “You see three oil tanks out there? These tanks created all the deaths here. A 10-meter tsunami overcame the seawall, and it destroyed the tanks and spilled oil into the bay. The oil caught on fire, and it became a hell of fire and water.”

The bay turned out to be a source of destruction for this once-vibrant community of Kesen-numa. The tsunami carried the ignited water deep into the inlet valley. I remember this once-beautiful place that I bicycled through on hot summer days when I was in high school. That memory is quite a contrast from what I see in front of me—a half-snow-covered, charred mess. A cold wind hisses as it blows through the wreckage and debris.

I see several large ships landfalled a couple kilometers from the bay. They were deep-ocean tuna boats. If these ships came toward you with a burning tsunami, there would be nothing you could do about it. No buildings can withstand such things.

KensennumaNarrow bays or inlets are very dangerous. Their shape increases the height and velocity of a tsunami. The effect is similar to squeezing a garden hose. The oil tanks were located in the most hazardous tsunami area with inadequate seawalls. These oil tanks require much taller seawalls if they cannot be on higher ground. To mitigate tsunami hazards, engineers cannot work alone. Collaboration with planners and architects is critical. It needs to be a holistic approach.

Earlier, I investigated downtown Kesen-numa. The downtown commercial district was in one of the many inlets in this town, and it was hit by about a two-story-high wave. I figured this out by observing watermarks on the surviving buildings. All the buildings that remained were reinforced-concrete structures. About 80 percent of the buildings were totally destroyed or taken out to sea by the retreating waves. All the destroyed buildings were made of wood.

IMG_7212A small elderly lady caught my sleeve and said to me, “I understand you are an engineer. I want you to see my house. ” She showed me her three-story, mixed-usage building on a corner facing the bay. She was using the first floor as a store, the second floor as an office, and the top floor as her residence. She asked me to verify the structural safety of her building. She pointed out the large fishing boat on top of the dock and said, “That ship was pushed up by the tsunami. Fortunately, it didn’t hit my house, but a 10-meter-high wave directly hit the house with its full force.”

I walked through her concrete building, and I did not see any structural damage. I told her that her building was safe to occupy. I could see that she was very relieved, and she cheerfully resumed cleaning up the floor. Her building is a true tsunami-sustainable structure. She was able to continue living in her third-floor residence, which was untouched by the sea. It can be done.


Photo: A couple fighting the severe weather in Arahama after surviving the Tsunami

Sendai, Japan (March 16, 2011) – Dr. Kit Miyamoto, the CEO of Miyamoto International, a global earthquake and structural engineering firm, reports on his experiences in Sendai.

I pick up a fragment of a small shell from a sandy beach. This brings back memories from 30 years ago, when I camped here. It was a sunny and warm summer day then. Today, the beach of Arahama is cold. This community was hit by a massive 10-meter tsunami last Friday. The area behind me looks as if a nuclear bomb blast just happened. Everything was wiped out. Debris is everywhere. Dusk is coming, and snow is starting to fall heavily, with a strong mountain wind. I cover my head with my jacket hood and start walking back fast through the quiet destruction. I started the day intending to investigate Sendai, which is a large, modern metropolis. According to our base team in California, Japanese seismographs here showed a whopping 170 percent of gravity (g) in the horizontal motion of the earthquake. I really doubt this number, because I hardly see any shaking damage in the area. Usually, at over 30 percent g, you would start to see cracks in buildings and failures in older construction. I just cannot imagine that this place experienced more than 20 percent g. The fault rupture was 150 kilometers away. At that distance, strong ground motions would diminish, even for a magnitude 9 event.

IMG_6995The odd thing about Sendai is that almost none of the stores are open. People are strolling around as if nothing unusual had happened. But seeing closed shutters in the middle of a Wednesday is unreal. For the few open stores, people are lined up in long lines. What is really hurting this city is not direct earthquake damage, but lack of oil, food and other essentials. Stores cannot be open if there is nothing to sell. Damaged oil refineries and ports make it very difficult to have adequate oil in gas stations, and some gas stations cannot pump gas because of power outages. And because very few gas stations are open along highways and airports are closed, food and other essentials are not reaching this city. I have been living on dehydrated backpack food and instant noodles for the last few days. My mountain-climbing hobby is helping me meet basic needs. With the added stress of a constant threat of radiation fallout from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant, people here are on edge. It feels like it is essentially the end of civilization as we know it.

I am now at the edge of the Wakabayashi district. This once-vibrant town does not exist any longer. It was destroyed by the tsunami. I need to find out why this town was destroyed. I know that large seawalls existed here. At the police checkpoint, an officer acknowledges my credentials, points in a direction, and says, “Just go straight for three kilometers. You will reach the Arahama beach. Come back by dusk and tell me why the seawall failed to protect my town.” The waves had reached 3 kilometers deep inland.

IMG_7046I start walking toward the destroyed town and beach that I visited when I was a boy.Nothing really has prepared me for what I see. I have been in many disasters, but this one is different. I see complete destruction. Along the road, I find mangled cars, houses, trees and shrines. The sun is shining on the lake of seawater left by the tsunami. Every so often, I come across a few souls walking among the debris. I see a lone dog, which walks right past me. I wonder how he survived the flood. I then come across an elderly couple. The wife is crying and clinging to her husband. Many people lost their lives here. The feeling of desolation is heavy. In the sea of destruction, there are still some buildings standing. They were all built with concrete or steel. All the wooden houses washed away–no exceptions. A solitary four-story concrete school stands unharmed. I see evidence of seismic strengthening with braces in the windows. These braces helped the structure withstand the tremendous forces from the tsunami and debris flow. I also see one large pine tree stuck in the second floor of the gymnasium. The waves reached about 7 to 10 meters here. At the very least, if students were above the third floor, hey would have survived.

Based on past observations of the failures and successes of structures, if anyone wants to build in areas with the potential for tsunamis, a few things should be considered. A structure should be engineered with concrete or steel. It should be a multistory building with a fast vertical escape route. The ground floor should be free of concrete or rigid walls so that water and debris can flow through. If all structures are built this way, a community could be functional very rapidly fter a tsunami rather than have to be totally rebuilt.

IMG_7106Next I enter a mangled pine tree forest, which was planted to slow down a tsunami. I find 7-meter-high seawalls stretched from horizon to horizon. The Japanese government has spent billions of dollars over the last several decades to build an elaborate seawall system along the country’s coastline. But the seawalls turned out to be simply too low for a 3- to 10-meter tsunami. Could a 10-meter-high wall save this town? Probably. But a 15-meter-high wave would wash over it. Any walls will eventually be overcome by nature. Over-reliance on seawalls will not mitigate the tsunami hazard. Buildings also need to be able to survive a tsunami. The Fukushima nuclear plant relied on a 5-meter-high seawall. The wall did not work for a 10-mete rhigh tsunami, and eventually this failure caused a nuclear meltdown. A singular solution cannot address all the potential hazards. We engineers must design sustainable communities. To do that, multiple solutions must be used, and we must understand all of nature’s forces. So, designing alternative means to address nature’s forces is critical.

Finally, I reach my childhood beach. It is totally desolate, and gentle waves are striking the sandy beach. I don’t see any debris here. I cannot believe that there was a massive tsunami just a few days earlier. I must be one of the first people to reach this beach, because I do not see any other footprints. Suddenly, a cold mountain wind starts blowing. A snowstorm is coming. I turn my back to the beach and head back to shelter.