Above: The Crisis Management Department Building in Minamisanriku, Japan: 2011 (L) and 2013 (R)

Carlos Molina Hutt is a Teaching Fellow in Structural and Earthquake Engineering at University College London (UCL) and Vice Chair of the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT). Prior to joining UCL, Carlos worked as a Structural Engineer at Arup New York in the USA, where he is a licensed Professional Engineer.

In the first of two blogs, he discusses EEFIT’s work around the world, and how structural engineers help get affected communities back on their feet after devastating earthquakes.

I’m proud to serve as Vice Chair of EEFIT, an organisation which brings together engineers and scientists from industry and universities to conduct field investigations following major earthquakes.

Our mission is to provide a technical evaluation of the performance of the built environment following earthquakes and report back to the engineering community. This work is important because it helps advance earthquake (or ‘seismic’) engineering practice, by improving our understanding of the impact earthquakes have on the physical, social and economic environment. Advancements in seismic engineering contribute to the improvement of safety, and help reduce damage and economic losses in future earthquakes.
In the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, search and rescue teams take priority. Structural engineers can participate in these efforts by assessing whether buildings are safe enough to enter, and select the safest way to breach the structure - in order to minimise risk to the search and rescue workers. (See our previous blog by Josh Macabuag, who travelled to Nepal last year to participate in search and rescue efforts with SARAID).

Once search and rescue operations have concluded, structural engineers can take part in reconnaissance missions (such as those carried out by EEFIT) to learn from the event and feed those lessons back to the engineering community. Structural engineers also play a crucial role in helping identify buildings which pose a risk to occupants – often using a tagging system, marking buildings as safe to re-occupy (green), requiring further inspection (orange)  - or unsafe to enter due to extensive damage or surrounding hazards (red). As part of these efforts, structural engineers can also help with shoring and temporary stabilisation efforts of damaged structures.

Lastly, structural engineers are key players in reconstruction, contributing to the design of new buildings and the seismic retrofit of damaged ones. Field investigations such as those conducted by EEFIT help highlight deficiencies in certain construction typologies, which ultimately lead to improved building codes and safer buildings.

Personally, I have had the opportunity to travel to a number of earthquake affected regions: L’Aquila, Italy, which was affected by a M6.3 earthquake on April 6, 2009; Haiti, after the M7 event of January 12, 2010; and Tohoku, Japan, after the M9 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami on March 11, 2011.

My visit to Tohoku was part of an EEFIT mission to study the progress of the recovery and reconstruction efforts two years after the 2011 event. At the time of our visit, the recovery process was still in its initial stages - as evidenced by these photos of the Crisis Management Department Building in Minamisanriku, Japan taken during our 2011 and 2013 missions (I am standing to the right of the building in the 2013 photo). While the debris from the tsunami had been cleared and many sites had been repaired, the country was still dealing with a complex temporary housing situation and faced long term planning challenges in order to secure the future of cities devastated by the tsunami.

The economic and social impact of earthquakes stretches far beyond the actual event. Even in the case of L’Aquila, a drastically smaller earthquake, the recovery and reconstruction process is taking years.

Since its founding in 1982, EEFIT has produced a variety of reports, which can be viewed online for free, as can a number of webinars outlining the findings from our missions.

(Look out for our second EEFIT blog, where Carlos answers common questions about earthquake engineering).


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