Nepal and Preparing for Major Earthquakes

Dr. Wayne Pennington is the Dean of the College of Engineering at Michigan Technological University. A geophysicist by trade, his work and experience spans academia and industry across the globe, from Latin America to Pakistan. I spoke with him about the recent events in Nepal, and his experiences helping developing nations prepare for and respond to major earthquakes.

Adrian de Novato: Thank you for talking with us, Dr. Pennington. Would you start us off by giving us a brief overview of your background and experience in earthquake science?

Dr. Pennington: I began my academic career as an earthquake seismologist, and have worked around the world studying earthquakes in the field as well as analyzing the seismograms that are recorded of them.

Adrian de Novato: Nepal is a very familiar place for you. You worked in the country several years ago, studying the vulnerabilities and potential impacts in the event of a major earthquake. What was that experience like?

Dean of Engineering, Dr. Wayne Pennington / MTU
Dr. Wayne Pennington / MTU

Dr. Pennington: I was in Nepal for about one week in 2010, as part of a conference on coordinating civilian relief organizations and military rescue and rebuilding. The conference was fascinating, in part because it was a regional one, with people representing many agencies from many different countries. Some of those people are probably very busy right now, implementing the plans that were made at that time. I have, however, spent quite a bit of time in northern Pakistan (in the 1970’s), studying earthquakes, including one that killed several thousand people while I was there. I was able to see the sort of damage that can easily occur to poorly constructed homes, particularly those on steep mountainsides, but I also lived there long enough to understand how difficult it can be to provide education to the craftsmen who build homes and schools. (I also experienced a thousand or more earthquakes – aftershocks of the devastating one in Pakistan and another in southern Mexico, where I was at the epicenter of a magnitude 7.7 earthquake. These experiences have helped me understand what one experiences during the event itself – I don’t recommend it – and the level of panic that can remain for weeks or months.)

Adrian de Novato: Part of your work involved being somewhat of an ambassador for earthquake science, helping the humanitarian and the diplomatic communities understand the very real dangers of an earthquake like this. You were attached to the United States Agency for International Development during the Haiti earthquake in 2010. You’ve seen the incredible devastation that a major earthquake can bring upon people in third world conditions. How do these experiences help scientists like you better prepare these under-developed countries and what are the primary problems in doing so?

Dr. Pennington: Yes, as a Jefferson Science Fellow (on assignment from Michigan Tech), I had already assisted USAID in improving the earthquake-hazard map for Afghanistan and had obtained their recognition as someone who did know something about earthquakes. So when the devastating earthquake hit Haiti, I was quickly enlisted to explain, first, the scientific aspects of it to the diplomatic community and to those engaged in relief operations. One of the things that surprised me was how surprised many of them, including people providing relief, were that there were large and damaging aftershocks. I was able to “translate” the scientific jargon that we often use to describe aftershock frequency and magnitudes into realistic and understandable terms that they could use to plan their operations. My previous experiences with large earthquakes in Asia and Latin America helped me to put a human face on it all.

Then, my attention quickly turned also to helping communicate with the scientists heading into the field – to help obtain clearance, or permission to operate, and to provide a communication path between them and the authorities on the ground. Because I knew many of the scientists personally, I was able to provide meaningful recommendations to the authorities that would help them operate, but also to keep out of each other’s way.

Many of the observations that these scientists and engineers made needed to be taken quickly before the conditions changed, so that they could observe the effects of the ground shaking on different types of terrains and on different types of buildings. Their reports are useful to the rebuilding effort, so that future buildings and infrastructure could be built to withstand the effects. Within a few weeks, several organizations sponsored a meeting that we organized to bring together the scientists, engineers, urban planners, architects, and political operatives involved in Haiti; it is surprising how rarely people from these different disciplines actually get together for a common purpose.

Several months after the earthquake, I was part of a team organized by the United Nations to provide advice to the UN and to the Haitian government concerning the rebuilding effort, including the development of expertise in the country for seismology and for earthquake engineering. Our report had some impact on both the UN operations and the Haitian approaches, but it is just one part of what has to be a continuous effort to improve conditions and knowledge.

Adrian de Novato: What are you primarily concerned about when a major earthquake strikes an under-developed region like Nepal? What are the first steps in disaster response?

Dr. Pennington: One of the things we were all concerned about at the conference I participated in, in Nepal in 2010, was the pre-distribution of relief goods at appropriate locations around the city of Katmandu and in the neighboring regions. It is almost impossible to get into the damaged areas for days, sometimes even longer. (In Pakistan, I rode in by helicopter, but it took me days to “walk” back out of the mountains, just as it would most villagers. After the earthquake in Mexico, my wife did not hear from me for three days because all phone lines were down. I re-live each of these experiences each time that a large earthquake occurs, especially if it is in a place I have visited.) So prior planning is essential, and maintaining the warehouses of tents and dried food and other supplies must be kept up for decades, waiting for the disaster. It is difficult to support that sort of effort, particularly when politicians come and go so quickly. So I worry about the difficult and limited access, and hope that some of the pre-deployed supplies still exist, and can be used. But often they cannot.

The first step in response is reconnaissance. USAID usually sends in a “DART” – Disaster assistance response team – of highly experienced self-sufficient people who can quickly determine the level of need. Next comes the assistance itself. This can be a chaotic time, with various aid agencies nearly tripping over each other in an uncoordinated effort. The big-time professional aid groups have developed approaches to attempting coordination, but the large number of smaller less-experienced but well-meaning groups can actually damage the overall effort. It may seem counter-intuitive, but donations are almost always best done by providing money to the larger organizations, rather than supplies through smaller groups.

Then, after the initial response, the next problem the aid organizations face is trying to find a way to end the culture of dependence that they may have inadvertently created! Think of it this way: the food being distributed for free is important in the early days, but after a while, it is only taking away livelihood from the people who used to distribute and sell food products. They end up being on the receiving end of the “aid” rather than establishing a sound local economy. In some places, this dependence may be very difficult to end, and it is often a problem that the aid groups have created without realizing it.

Adrian de Novato: If I understand this correctly, scientists have been predicting a major earthquake along the Himalayas for quite some time now. Yet, immediate reports suggest this earthquake, while devastating, is not the earthquake being projected. The fault pressure remains. Are you familiar with this prediction and do you have any insight?

Dr. Pennington: Yes, it seems that major earthquakes have occurred in this region of the Himalayas about every 75 years on average. The last one near this location was in 1934, and it has been estimated to have been about magnitude 8, while last weekend’s event was 7.8 (remember that the magnitude scale is logarithmic, so this is a big difference). There is also, in any large earthquake, a concern that neighboring regions of the fault have been stressed by the earthquake itself, and are now closer to “failure” – that is, to having an earthquake themselves – then previously. Some numerical modeling can help to determine the degree of hazard that this creates, but we just do not have enough information to do this with the confidence that would allow us to say “yes, all the stress has been relieved” or “no, this was not the big one after all.” We are always concerned that additional large earthquakes may happen, but with each day that one does not occur, we know that statistically the chances of another large one diminish rapidly.

Adrian de Novato: The general public is always looking for ways to help when a natural disaster strikes. In your experience, what is the best way for the average person to contribute and does any particular humanitarian organization stand out above the others?

Dr. Pennington: The biggest and most well-known aid organizations are the ones that generally handle the response most effectively and are best stewards of your donations. The International Red Cross is one of the best. Among faith-based organizations, it is best to find ones that represent large groups of donors, such as the Catholic Relief Services. And, again, donations of money, rather than goods or food, are best – the aid groups can then direct that cash where it is most needed. In my specific interest of earthquake-resistant building design, I am a great fan of two organizations: Build Change (BuildChange.org) and GeoHazards International (geohaz.org). Both of these groups identify local approaches to improving home and school construction that fit with the cultural needs of the area, and providing instruction and education.

About Dr. Wayne Pennington:

Pennington has served as the President of the American Geological Institute and as the first vice president of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists. He has worked with diplomats (US Dept. of State and the US Agency for International Development) and humanitarian groups across the world, helping bridge the gap between earthquake science and disaster policy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and presentation only.

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