A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, causing massive destruction, triggering landslides in rural areas and setting off an avalanche on Mount Everest. The death toll is more than 7,000 and expected to increase. Robert Olshansky, a U. of I. professor of urban and regional planning, has written extensively on postdisaster recovery planning. He is the co-author of a 2010 book, “Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans,” that looks at the city’s challenges in recovering after Hurricane Katrina. He also is part of a research team that received funding from the National Science Foundation to study China’s recovery from a devastating earthquake in 2008 and to develop a model of recovery management. He talked about the earthquake in Nepal and what can be learned in its aftermath with News Bureau arts and humanities editor Jodi Heckel.
How does the earthquake in Nepal compare to the 2008 earthquake in China and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti in terms of the level of damage and loss of life?
In raw numbers, this earthquake is much less devastating and widespread than either the 2010 Haiti or 2008 China earthquakes. Still, it appears that a number of towns were virtually destroyed, and these areas will face challenges similar to those in other great disasters. Regarding recovery, it’s important to remember that every disaster is different. Furthermore, disasters are social phenomena, so they reflect the social, economic and political environment in which they occur. This means that it is hard to compare the situations following these different earthquakes, and it is also a bit presumptuous for me at this point to make pronouncements about Nepal. Still, I think we can say that the greatest challenges probably will be in the remote mountain areas, because access is poor and lifelines have likely been damaged. Furthermore, these areas probably were economically marginal before the earthquake – with many of them also in unstable terrain – which will raise difficult questions regarding their reconstruction.
As a city highly at risk for earthquake damage, Kathmandu has done more preparation than many cities in the developing world. What has the city done to prepare for such a disaster, and do you believe those measures have made a difference by saving lives?
Kathmandu has long been aware of its earthquake risk, and many organizations, both within and outside of Nepal, have been carrying out initiatives to identify vulnerable buildings, strengthen schools and hospitals, and improve emergency preparedness, among other actions. I know of some of the organizations – the National Society for Earthquake Technology – Nepal, the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium and international NGOs such as GeoHazards International, for example – but I can’t say how much of their agendas had been completed at the time of the earthquake. I’m sure the preparedness efforts and limited retrofitting (I read somewhere that 20 school buildings had been retrofitted, for example) helped to reduce the effects of the disaster where they had been applied, but I can’t say how extensive they were.
You are part of the Learning from Earthquakes Program of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, which will be sending reconnaissance teams to Nepal. What do you hope to learn about the country’s recovery as part of the team going to Nepal several months from now?
We expect to send two teams, one in the near-term to observe earthquake damages and immediate effects on urban infrastructure and social systems, and another in a few months to observe longer-term recovery issues. At this point, I can think of two things I would like to learn from the second team. First, as noted in the previous question, I am curious to what degree Nepal’s various seismic safety initiatives were effective in reducing casualties and damages, as well as in informing the reconstruction process. Kathmandu is one of many cities in developing countries with a significant earthquake threat. Because such places need to balance long-term risks with the challenges of daily life, Kathmandu may provide some lessons regarding inexpensive actions that can save lives and buildings. Second, I am aware that Nepal’s government is weak, but, at the same time, the country apparently has organizations that help it to function. Recovery is most successful when begun from the bottom up, when residents organize on their own to rebuild their communities. I suspect that Nepal may be well-prepared to do this. On the other hand, governments also have key roles to play in successful recoveries, and so I am curious how Nepal’s situation affects the recovery process. Sometimes, as in Aceh (in Indonesia) following the 2004 tsunami, devastating disasters can even catalyze dramatic improvements in governance.
Engineers can help build safer buildings to better withstand earthquakes. How can urban planners, social scientists and experts from other disciplines also help to make earthquake-prone areas better prepared for natural disasters?
Obviously, it’s important to construct and strengthen buildings so they can resist expected levels of earthquake shaking. But the process involves much more than engineering. We have the technical knowledge to build safe buildings, but accomplishing this task requires awareness, concern, political support, social and administrative organization, and money. In most places, the costs need to be traded off against other important needs that support daily life. Thus, seismic safety needs to be strategic: Where can we produce the greatest benefits for the smallest cost, and does the institutional environment exist to accomplish it? As an urban planner, I try to think strategically, within a framework of urban physical, social, and institutional systems. The postdisaster environment paradoxically is an opportune time to advance such concerns, because awareness and concern are high, funds are available, and the weakest buildings need to be replaced. But it also can be a challenging time because of the intense time pressures. This is the problem that my colleagues and I are trying to solve.