Unearthing data, best practices from Nepal’s earthquake rubble

Professors in FIU’s OHL School of Construction mount research effort

Watching live TV coverage of earthquake destruction in Nepal in April 2015 prompted Ali Mostafavi to make three important phone calls.

The first two he placed to his fellow-professor in the OHL School of Construction. Initially, he wanted only to inquire about the man’s family. Nipesh Pradhananga hails from the South Asian country and his immediate relatives were safe, but in the days ahead several others would be counted among the heartbreaking 8,500 who perished in the disaster and its wake.

“I said, ‘If you need anything, let me know,’” Mostafavi recalls telling his friend before hanging up, “and then I continued watching the news, and I started seeing different images of infrastructure failures.” Waterline breaks, landslides spilling onto roadways—those are the kinds of things the engineer in him noticed.

So, despite the late hour, Mostafavi called him again. “I said, ‘Nipesh, I think we can do something about it. Would you be interested?’ He said, ‘Yeah, of course, let’s do it.’”

That affirmative answer would lead to the third important phone conversation. “The next day I called NSF, talked to them and they seemed to be interested,” Mostafavi says of the National Science Foundation’s response to an idea he had begun formulating just hours before. A program director there expressed interest in providing funding through a special grant that targets time-critical projects and reduces the normal months-long approval process. Soon the two construction management professors would be making their first research trips to Kathmandu Valley.

A third professor, N. Emel Ganapati, in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, would also join the team. (See related story.)

PicMonkey Collage

Downed power lines and crumpled buildings are among the infrastructure problems that affected Nepal after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in April 2015.

Understanding how it all connects
In his busy lab at FIU, Mostafavi has several active projects related to his expertise in how to design and manage interdependent infrastructure systems such as power and water utilities. His work takes a holistic approach to this interconnected “system of systems” with the goal of enhancing resiliency, defined as the capacity to recover from failures.

Nepal makes a good case study, he explains, because it allows him and other researchers to add to the scarce data that exists on infrastructure breakdowns in developing countries and how systems perform in the face of disaster. Understanding how things in Nepal went wrong—and, in some cases, right—could potentially inform stakeholders in both the developing and developed worlds.

Certainly countries such as the United States are not immune to natural disasters nor their often-calamitous aftermath. Mostafavi offers the example of Hurricane Sandy, which pounded the eastern seaboard in 2012, as one in which residents felt the full brunt of “cascading failures.” He points out how storm surge in New York knocked out a power substation, which in turn shut down the pumping station at a waste water treatment plant, which in turn saw dirty water back up into the freshwater supply, which ultimately left citizens in a lurch. Lacking utilities, one affected hospital spent 15 harrowing hours evacuating some 300 patients.

The value of learning to adapt
On their first visit to Kathmandu Valley, the professors met with local officials, heads of utilities, representatives of international relief agencies and residents. The two surveyed the physical damage and spoke with as many people as possible. Their goal: to find out how the failure of “lifeline” systems affected the community’s response process.

Very quickly the pair made two important observations. The first concerned the physical aspects of infrastructure. As Mostafavi explains it, construction based on solid urban development and sound engineering principles fared best, with damage at a minimum. But, as might be expected, structures built of unreinforced masonry—those not embedded with steel and therefore susceptible to collapse under catastrophic conditions—did not withstand the quake. An estimated more than 60 percent of buildings in Nepal consist of the latter, and the 2015 cataclysm delivered a painful lesson.

More eye-opening, and certainly less-expected, was the second observation: The professors found that the community in general displayed a high degree of resiliency. Trained to look for signs and attitudes that point to an ability to rebound—interviews and surveys with both officials and residents are used to glean this important data—Mostafavi came to understand why. Strange as it might seem, people’s ability to successfully bounce back after the earthquake was a direct result of the previously existing shortfall in municipal services.

“The system, even before the earthquake, had a huge supply-demand gap,” Mostafavi explains. Residents could never count on uninterrupted access to electricity or water, and in some cases could not expect utility services for more than 10 to 15 hours per week. Yet the workarounds that individuals and even whole communities had in place to overcome the lack of reliable centralized services ultimately helped them get through the aftermath of the cataclysm.

“The social system adapted,” Mostafavi explains of the accommodations people had made for years. For example, homeowners had installed rooftop water collection and storage tanks and connected their dwellings to generators to run lights and essential appliances. Institutions likewise had their plans in place. An area hospital, for example, had long held contracts with local companies to truck in water as regularly needed, something that automatically continued after the earthquake.

Lessons from Nepal
Mostafavi believes that developed countries should take note of Nepal’s success in that regard. “This verifies the hypothesis that if we move to a more distributed [less centralized] system in designing lifeline infrastructure systems, we improve resiliency in the face of disasters,” he says. “The impacts are reduced.”

On the first anniversary of the earthquake, the three professors will present their findings and conclusions to researchers and officials from around the world at a conference in Nepal. The research team will also organize a workshop at a local university to share practical information with those who live and work in the area.

Back in Miami, in his research lab, Mostafavi continues to work with the data gathered in Nepal and elsewhere to create models based on a variety of worst-case scenarios. His goal: to provide tools that encourage decision makers—whether anticipating earthquakes, hurricanes, drought, flooding caused by sea level rise or any other natural disaster—to undertake needed investments and preparations for the best possible outcomes.

“Because,” he says, “no matter how well we plan, how well we’ve modeled, these events include an unknown component, things that we don’t know we don’t know. They happen and they surprise us in one way or the other.”  ♦