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When a series of earthquakes ripped through western India earlier this year, leaving tens of thousands dead and nearly half a million homeless, Brian Tucker (MPA 1991) wasn't completely surprised. During his career as a seismologist, first with the California Division of Mines and Geology, now with the nonprofit he founded that works with earthquake-threatened communities, he had seen this kind of devastation before in developing countries.
Still, Tucker found the events painful to watch.
"First, for the reason it's painful to everyone else: watching the suffering of poor people and innocent children is difficult," he said from the Palo Alto-headquarters of GeoHazards International, started while studying at the Kennedy School.
"Second, because for a fraction of the cost of all the aid that is poured in to help after the event, the death, injury, and economic loss would have been greatly reduced if measures were taken before the earthquake," he says. "And finally, because little attention is given to the other cities that are as vulnerable as Bhuj [India] was. I want the Bhuj victims to be helped, but then let us turn to the future Bhuj disasters and try to reduce them before they happen."
This is exactly what he has set out to do with his team at GeoHazards, which devotes itself to reducing death and distress caused by earthquakes by conducting research, working with local governments to assess risk, training masons to build safer structures, and teaching schools how to be better prepared. GeoHazards' focus is on developing countries, which are considered most at risk in terms of potential loss of life.
"It's a strange fact that recently, the greatest population growth has been in developing countries in regions of great earthquake hazard," he says, such as Indonesia, China, and the Philippines. Economies are poor and buildings are being built rapidly to house the surging population, with little concern for earthquake resistance.
"Often, this is blamed on the poor economy, but a large factor is just ignorance of the problem and of the existence of economical solutions," he says, explaining why more communities are not investing in safe infrastructure.
Most prepared to deal with earthquakes are the United States and Japan, he said. "From a pilot project we did last year, we found that a person living in Kathmandu, Nepal, for instance, is 400 times more likely to die from earthquakes than in Tokyo, over a given period of time," he says.
Luckily, Kathmandu has been responsive to GeoHazards' research. Local Nepalese earthquake societies and government officials have been working with them to design projects such as an annual earthquake awareness day. They also translate their data into layman's terms so that local newspapers and TV stations can easily write stories that help educate the general population. In addition, they have been training local masons to incorporate earthquake-resistant designs into structures and partnering with schools to create safety programs - the latter a key to the future of risk management.
"In a typical, developing country with a high earthquake risk, about 25 percent of the population is school age," he says. "If we maintain an awareness program for 10 years in those countries aimed at school kids, we will have educated about half of the population who will be calling the shots in the future."
Photo: Brian Tucker receiving an award from the King of Nepal for his earthquake relief work.