Degenkolb’s 70-Year Tradition of Earthquake Chasing

August 13, 2013

Learning from earthquakes through reconnaissance trips is a valued tradition at Degenkolb Engineers. Since our founding in 1940, our engineers have been observing damage after earthquakes through these trips and adjusting how we practice engineering as a result. Our experiences, combined with those of many others, ultimately lead to new design procedures and building code provisions. The learning continues with every earthquake—most recently those in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand, and Japan—and each is unique in its own regard. Haiti is teaching us, however, that when disaster strikes a developing country where modern building codes are not used, the challenge becomes working with the community to transition the construction culture to one that rebuilds using resilient community standards.

More than two years ago, the earthquake in Haiti crippled the already troubled nation’s infrastructure. The 7.2 magnitude earthquake displaced more than 3 million residents and damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings, both commercial and residential. Effective enforcement of seismic standards was not present in Haiti before the earthquake.

Degenkolb initially sent a four-person reconnaissance team to assess the damage. During this 10-day mission to Portau- Prince, the team assisted with post-earthquake building inspections. It became apparent that the recovery and reconstruction techniques being considered were not well tailored to the country’s construction style, not aligned with a seismic retrofit process, and not aimed at getting people back into their homes as quickly as possible. Procedures were needed to determine the significance of the damage and identify the needed seismic retrofits that could be implemented at the same time as the earthquake damage was repaired. This would allow displaced people to return to their homes more quickly.

Engineers from Degenkolb have led or participated in the development of almost all U.S. seismic standards in use today, and we were determined to use this experience to create seismic standards for Haiti. At the same time, Build Change—a nonprofit social enterprise dedicated to training homeowners, builders, engineers, and government officials on how to build earthquake-resistant houses around the world—agreed to assist the Haitian government with technical assistance, training services, building codes, and inspection checklist systems. Along with their engineering partners, they developed structural engineering design resources for the government, such as design drawings, design rules, bills of quantity, cost estimates and construction quality checklists, and retrofitting solutions for common construction systems used in Haiti. Degenkolb initially joined the Build Change team as a peer reviewer, and our role has grown to include the development and implementation of a comprehensive retrofit guideline and training program.

The newly developed evaluation and retrofit procedure starts with a site visit and checklist evaluation to identify major deficiencies. The procedure is sophisticated and simple to implement, but it still requires engineering judgment to execute correctly. Engineers measure and document the building, define the usable walls, identify the building type, and complete the evaluation checklist. It turns out that many buildings do not need significant retrofit. The trick to the process is maximizing the benefit to the owner for every dollar spent on retrofitting a house. It avoids the common and expensive practice of unnecessarily tearing down older and damaged houses and rebuilding.

Degenkolb continues to train engineers from the Ministry of Transportation, Public Works and Communication (MTPTC), and the local engineers employed by Build Change. The momentum for retrofits is growing, and families are beginning to move back into their retrofitted and repaired homes with a new sense of security. This time, Degenkolb’s earthquake reconnaissance has led to helping a developing country begin the long process of achieving resilience in an affordable, sustainable, and achievable manner.

[Editor's note: This article is part of The Role of Business in Disaster Response report.]