(All images credit Will Oliver EPA)
Josh Macabuag is a Chartered Structural Engineer, currently conducting an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) in building design for earthquakes and tsunamis at EPICentre, University College London. He has over four years' experience in building design, working in the UK, the Middle East and South Africa, and has worked with our Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team on multiple research trips to Japan following the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami. Josh travelled to Nepal after the devastating Earthquake of 25 April, as part of the search and rescue team, SARAID. Here he describes his work and experiences.
SARAID (Search And Rescue Assistance In Disasters) deployed a 15 strong team to Nepal including two engineers, myself and Mark Scorer (Atkins). The team, working mainly in Kathmandu and the surrounding area, were responsible for coordinating and conducting searches for live victims trapped in collapsed buildings. The team conducted search and rescue operations for five days before returning to the UK, while I remained in Nepal for a further five days to conduct structural assessments of key buildings.
As a search and rescue engineer, I have to decide whether a building is safe to enter, and select the safest way to enter or breach the structure. Generally this involves shoring up the structure to limit further movement/collapse, cutting through walls or floors to reach the casualties, and monitoring the structure for movement during the rescue.
It can be a nerve-wracking experience: partially collapsed buildings are incredibly unstable and you are very aware of locals watching you, hoping for loved ones to be found. Thankfully our training prepared us for the situation.
Overall, I have returned from Nepal with both positive and difficult experiences. There is a lot of frustration at not having been able to reach victims faster, due to Kathmandu Airport’s restricted capacity, damaged roads preventing access to remote hard-hit areas, and a lack of information about where trapped victims were most likely to be.
There was also a feeling of helplessness due to the extremely low chances of survival for people within the kind of non-engineered buildings, particularly adobe (mud brick) and unreinforced masonry, which are common in the country: these are heavy, brittle, and very vulnerable to sudden collapse during earthquakes, and the resulting lack of survivable voids meant that many people were crushed or suffocated before help could arrive – a terrible loss of life.
But there was a positive side too, in being able to demonstrate to the Nepalese government and local people on the ground that we were there to help and provide people with closure that there was no one trapped alive within the buildings that we searched.
In addition, the Nepalese Government asked structural engineers to remain in-country after search and rescue operations concluded, to assess whether key buildings like hospitals and schools could be used or should be demolished. It was very gratifying to be able to use my skills as an engineer in this way, providing assurances to some people, removing others from dangerous buildings and providing some training to young Nepalese engineers.
It is imperative now that Nepal “build back safer” and address the issue of existing vulnerable buildings. The vast majority of the surviving buildings are of similarly weak construction and are very vulnerable to future earthquakes. In a more economically developed country, regulation of building design requirements and controls during construction would help. But in Nepal, where the majority of buildings are non-engineered, regulations may not be followed. That means a bottom-up approach is required: training communities and masons in the need to safeguard their buildings, and providing them with simple rules-of-thumb that can be employed to improve building safety.
SARAID is a charity with no government funding and all members are unpaid volunteers. Find out more about SARAID and how you can donate here: www.saraid.org.uk