I listened to a presentation of engineers who had just returned from Turkey, where a terrible earthquake had recently levelled thousands of homes. The mechanics of the failures were well known: the concrete strength had been too low, the shear ties had been improperly bent, and the common practice of building spacious stores below many apartments had created weaknesses that allowed the earthquake to pull down entire buildings. The death of nearly 20,000 people was predictable.
Sitting next to a Turkish friend and officemate, I saw the projector slides of crumpled buildings and crushed belongings through her eyes. Unlike other post-disaster presentations, a strong empathy engendered my rapt attention. The final gut-wrenching conclusion was that there was there nothing to learn from the quake.
However, I had to find the lesson. I convinced my graduate advisor to let me take courses in cultural anthropology — I wanted to understand the people and communities of the tragedy. I poured over Turkish grammar books at night, teaching myself a language of poetic lilt and ironclad logic. I then won a Fulbright scholarship to study in the aftermath. Without ever having left U.S. soil, I moved to a country on the other side of the world.
I immersed myself in the culture and the construction of Turkey. I spent my first year listening to residents talk about their homes and their visceral fears of earthquakes. I learned that most residential buildings were illegal — sitting on unowned land or constructed without the approval of local authorities. In the poorer districts, and in Istanbul’s outskirts, residents built new apartment blocks and additional floors as their families grew. Few ever consulted with an engineer to ensure their construction was safe. In fact, many residents had worked on construction sites and felt confident in their own knowledge. Whether a small cottage or five floors of concrete and brick, they built by guesswork.
The results were terrifying — rickety structures ready to crack and crumble in the inexorable shaking.
What I learned in Turkey opened my eyes. It wasn’t that the structural engineering I had learned at university was unavailable. The county had a decent building code and I was befriended by brilliant and exacting engineers. Rather, it was that the knowledge of building safely was not in the hands of the people who needed it most. The average Mehmet Bey who was building an informal home for his family, had neither the knowledge, connections, nor funds to acquire an engineered design.
I felt that the solution to avoid the next earthquake disaster was for everyone, not just the engineers, to understand at least some basic principles. I began working with the non-profit Istanbul Disaster Preparedness Program. We created a simple training and gathered a cadre of volunteer architects and engineers. They spread out across the city, speaking to crowded auditoriums of callous-handed bricklayers, grandmothers with their hair tied back by scarves, and gangly youth in their stiff school uniforms.
These Turkish volunteers were peppered with questions about the shape of a safe building and importance of a foundation. Their audiences were often surprised to learn that adding water to concrete, so it would more easily ooze into building forms, would weaken it. They marvelled at how a simple bend on the end of a shear tie could hold a column together as it shook. They learned that simple techniques could make big differences, and that engineered designs made the difference between the buildings that stood tall and those that crumpled.
Yet, my work in Turkey, and later in Central and South Asia, was far from sufficient. Even with dozens of trainings and a website of information, we were reaching only those who knew how to find us. In Istanbul alone, it made only a small ripple in the enormous sea of 10 million residents.
It was the limits of our work and the vastness of the need that led me to safer schools.
Seven years ago while Risk RED was still a fledgling organization, Marla Petal and I, with help from Bishnu Pandey, drafted guidance and curriculum support on school disaster management. We conceptualized school safety as comprised of safer school buildings, disaster management, and a curriculum for disaster risk reduction. That idea has blossomed into The Framework for Comprehensive School Safety, now championed by United Nations agencies, Save the Children, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and other humanitarian organizations around the world.
The decisions made when building safer schools have the potential to shape the decisions people later make about how to build their homes, clinics, and businesses. A safer school project can be a catalyst for community-wide change. Schools can be a node for community learning about risk and about solutions to that risk.
I grew up tinkering with tools in my father’s shop and helping him prepare for the commercial fishing season. I remember the vibration of wood sliding through the table saw, the heavy weight of his drill in my hand, and the burst of light slicing through the dark glass of an adult-size welder’s shield as I held torch to metal.
The work was visceral and satisfying. I could see our efforts take form over the course of weeks and months. The tasks required skills gained only from practice and careful observation.I never did get the knack of welding a straight line, but I did gain a respect for those who build with their hands.
At university, and later in graduate school, I studied structural engineering and learned the science behind the tinkering I had done as a child. On the job, I enjoyed the challenge of designing beautiful buildings, but also languished in my disconnection from the people who would build and use the technology I designed. Then, in a single afternoon in 1999, everything changed.
When the M7.6 Nepal earthquake struck on April 25th, 2015, I knew it was time to go to Nepal. Courageous colleagues in Nepal had already been working for decades to build safer schools there.
I know schools can be — must be — built to protect all of our children. In going to Nepal, I want to document the hope-filled message of safer schools and identify how safer schools can create safer communities. I hope what we learn this summer will ensure that the schools built during Nepal’s recovery are not just schools, but are safe schools.