On 26 Jan. 2001, while most of India celebrated its Republic Day and sovereignty, an oft-ignored force rocked, shook, and pushed celebration into sorrow. The biggest earthquake in Indian history in the past 50 years ravaged Gujarat, leaving 25,000 people dead (moderate estimates), innumerable families broken, and damaging historical monuments like the Salam Singh Ki Haveli and Hawa Pol (Gate of Wind) in Jaisalmer among others.

Earthquakes are one of the most powerful yet invisible threats to human existence. Their infrequent occurrence makes us ignore them, while their manifest power tempts many cultures to equate them to God’s wrath.
An earthquake is a sudden movement of the earth, caused by the abrupt release of strain that has accumulated over a long time. For countries like India, earthquakes pose a large threat because of the high density of population, especially in the urban areas. In December 2002, Geo Hazards International (GHI), a Palo Alto-based non-profit organization launched a three-year, $1.5 million initiative to assess risk, raise awareness, improve school safety, and strengthen the ability of the government and in-country non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to prepare and respond to future earthquakes.

The 20 target cities for this $1.5 million project (funded by the United States Agency for International Development—USAID) in India are: Agartala, Ahmedabad, Aizwal, Calcutta, Chandigarh, Chennai, Dehradun, Delhi, Gangtok, Guwahati, Imphal, Itanagar, Kohima, Lucknow, Mumbai, Panjim, Patna, Port Blair, Shillong, and Shimla.

This project was sparked in July 2001 when a high-level delegation of Indian government officials toured the U.S. to meet with organizations in the U.S. working on earthquake risks. GHI offered them its services and was approved due to their previous successes in other countries. GHI then submitted a proposal to USAID for working in India along with local NGO’s.

Geo-Hazards International (GHI) was established in 1993 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing death and injury caused by natural hazards in the world’s most vulnerable communities. In the past GHI has retrofitted schools in Ecuador and Nepal and built a hazard assessment organization in Nepal. GHI has one staff member, Elizabeth Hausler, Ph.D. (structural engineering), stationed in India for this project while the other members visit periodically. The Indian partners include NCDM (The National Centre for Disaster Management), SEEDS (Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society) in New Delhi, and VIDE (Volunteers for India Development and Empowerment). VIDE has also independently obtained funding for earthquake preparedness in Gujarat. Others partners of GHI include a network of advisors who come in at key moments.

The importance of partnering with a local organization cannot be over-emphasized. Brian E. Tucker, founder and president of GHI and a 2002 MacArthur fellow says, “Through our initial endeavors we learnt that for the legacy of the project, which we undertake to survive, there should be a local organization committed to continuing the project after we leave. In many of our past attempts as soon as GHI finished the work there was no institution left and everyone went back to his or her own work. Therefore, in order to prevent that from happening again, we always partner with a local organization and present the work as collaborative effort between GHI and them. People have to perceive the work as coming from within the community for it to stay.”

The typical action plan to heighten earthquake awareness is four-pronged. Starting with local governments, GHI reaches down to residences and schools to alert individuals to the risks they are facing. This first step includes a detailed, assessment of the actual hazards. This implies assessment of the earthquake safety of buildings in the region and general level of preparedness. The second step is to reduce the identified risk, starting with the community’s most critical services. This involves changing basic behavioral patterns and skill-sets to help engineers and masons design safer structures. The third step is assuring that new construction is earthquake resistant. This requires the creation and enforcement of modern seismic design codes, as well an appreciation of local building practice. The fourth step, which runs concurrently with the first three, is involvement of local experts engineers, scientist and government officials with their counterparts abroad.

Adds Tucker, “Each country has a different geography and geology, as also the system of government, culture, and economy. All mature countries have their own laws, with different building codes. It is comparatively easier to translate the finer nuances of earth science from one region to another but it is much more difficult to adapt to the existing social structure of different countries. It is my observation that these social factors are more important than the depth of the economy.”

Funding for GHI comes primarily from philanthropy. When Tucker began thinking about forming the nonprofit, he went to friends in Japan who worked for the geo-technical company Oyo. “They shared the vision that engineering skills developed in the U.S., Japan, and Europe should be applied to reduce risks in developing countries.” Through a combination of personal and corporate donations, the Japanese partners came up with the startup money for the non-profit.” Tucker eventually hopes for the organization to become self-sufficient.

GHI held its first workshop in India in early 2002, when 40 specialists in earthquake risk converged and formulated a selection of cities and suggested criteria. The criteria were: expected strength of earthquake shaking, rate of growth of population, importance of the city–for e.g., if that city was the state capital or economically very important, an estimation of the probable number of lives that might be lost to earthquakes in the next 50 years, etc. The rating criteria were then laid out on a spreadsheet. Initially 121 cities were assessed. During the analysis some cities quickly came to the top, some quickly came to the bottom, leading after some iterations to the final list given above.

The funding from USAID is strictly tied to the activities of this project. This will involve: (1) collecting data related to the cities’ seismic vulnerability, building inventory, assessing social infrastructure such as hospitals, fire department, schools, etc. through various kinds of surveys. Also, interviewing people in the 20 cities and analyzing that data. (2) Educating the decision makers (officials, civil engineers) about the risk and mitigation options through workshops and interactive surveys. (3) Dissemination of information collected to the general public through reports, press conferences, newspaper articles, etc. They will also have large symposiums, in five yet-to-be-decided cities, to present their findings. Aspects of risk management put in place for earthquakes would also serve towards mitigating the effects of other disasters such as fire, floods, etc.

Outlining their plan, Tucker concedes that they are limited by funds. “As the amount of funds we have are limited, we will try to focus on an area (in terms of skill or structure) where we can make a difference. We shall then choose a neighborhood that is receptive to change; as there is no point in working with a community that has other problems to solve. This is a gradual process. For e.g. when we train masons, many times the community chips in with donations and help in kind, and over a period of time the masons get trained to make safe buildings. The community benefits by knowing that there are masons who can build safely and contacts them whenever they are trying to build new structures like schools.”

Commenting on GHI’s insights from past experiences, he shares the importance of making the change manifest to the community, “It costs only an additional 5 percent to make a building earthquake safe. After our work is complete we try to make the changes obvious by shaking the two buildings on a Shaker Table (a table that is loaded on springs and moves up and down shaking scaled replicas like a can of paint). The building that has had the earthquake safe changes made stays while the other one, in many cases collapses.”

Tucker who served as principal and supervising geologist at the California Division of Mines and Geology, the state’s geological survey, for nine years before founding GHI says, “People living in caves and tents do not die during earthquakes. Therefore it is important to realize that building safe structures can help prevent great loss of life. In the 1950s not many people in North America wore seat belts in cars and wouldn’t have worn it even if they were given away for free. But now things are different. Similar is the case for change of any other type. We have to alter the way people think and make them aware of the risks.”