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Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar


By Megan McCaslin

As thousands of fresh-faced, energetic children in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, and Quito, Ecuador, enter their school buildings today, they are probably unaware that should an earthquake hit, they are likely to be among the lucky ones who survive. Unlike their counterparts in San Guiliano di Puglia, Italy, where most of the 29 people killed in a recent 5.4 earthquake were schoolchildren, their building will not collapse and crush them. They will, in all likelihood, live to tell about it, thanks to a self-effacing American seismologist named Brian Tucker ’67.

Tucker, 57, is the founder of GeoHazards International, a non-profit organization based above a Palo Alto coffee shop and dedicated to reducing earthquake damage in developing countries. Working with local seismologists, masons and politicians to heighten awareness of a region’s vulnerability, Tucker eschews taking an outsider, paternalistic approach in favor of empowering local people to recognize their own ability to help themselves. By articulating the threat posed by their particular seismic conditions, GHI encourages locals to create preparedness and emergency response strategies, to improve the structural safety of existing public buildings through low-cost retrofits and to change building codes to integrate seismic resistance into new construction.

In countries facing more immediate, tangible social hazards—poverty, disease, malnutrition—it’s a daunting challenge to convince people of the real threat posed by a hypothetical earthquake.

“I’m trying to prepare them for the disaster they don’t even know is coming,” says Tucker, whose colleagues describe him as impeccably honest and selfless. His greatest skill, they say, is getting people who are typically suspicious about foreign intervention to trust him. Since forming GHI in 1991 with a $200,000 budget, Tucker has focused his work on the most earthquake-prone areas of the world, namely Latin America, Indonesia, Central Asia and India. GHI, now with a $1 million budget, is the only nonprofit, non-governmental organization committed to helping reduce the risk of death and injury from structural collapse due to earthquakes in these developing areas.

For the creative, socially-responsible application of his expertise, Tucker was named a MacArthur Fellow in September, joining 23 other scientists, artists, writers, academics and activists described by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as individuals who “lift our spirits, illuminate human potential and shape our collective future.” The so-called “genius grant” includes $500,000 in “no-strings-attached” support over the next five years.

Although he welcomes the money, Tucker says the most important spin-off of the MacArthur will be to earn more respect and understanding of GHI’s work within the scientific community and among funders.

“It’s a validation of what we’re doing,” he says. “In my professional world, people receive tenure, promotions, or IPOs based on what’s important in the U.S., Japan and in Europe. If you go to an international conference on earthquake engineering, 90 percent of the talks, awards, banquets, are about projects important to our societies, such as the Bay Bridge.”

The unequal distribution of professional and economic resources is particularly disturbing, Tucker says, when you realize that 90 percent of the people most vulnerable to earthquake devastation live in developing countries, which receive only 10 percent of the money spent on earthquake research.

And the inequity is only getting worse, as urban centers in developing countries increase the density and height of their buildings to meet the demands of exploding populations. They build faster and cheaper, without accessing available and affordable civil engineering practices, and the risk grows exponentially.

“We’ve been viewed, I think, as kind of quirky, retro-hippies and if anyone was really serious about this problem, they would hire not us but the big firms and go over and clean up the mess. The MacArthur gives us a voice. It gives us legitimacy.”

What that translates to, he hopes, is “five minutes” to convince potential donors. Right now, GHI relies on five sources of support—government grants, foundation and corporate support, endowment income and membership dues. The lack of immediate gratification from Tucker’s work makes it hard to pitch.

“I fear that a donor thinks to himself: ‘I’ve got a million dollars I want to make the biggest difference I can in the world. Now let’s see, there’s AIDS, there’s nuclear proliferation, there’s water quality, there’s child prostitution…’ and then I say, ‘Ooh, wow, an earthquake in Iran!’’ he explains. “For my friends and me it makes sense. If I look at what I can do with my resources, that makes the biggest difference, it’s clear. This is the best I can do with my background and Rolodex.”

The MacArthur award has already helped funders better understand the unique value of GHI.

“Someone from the other side of the table told me, ‘We get 100 people trying to do something about AIDs, or homelessness or water, or child prostitution and I can’t distinguish all the grant proposals.’ What you’re doing is not a huge worldwide problem but you’re the only game in town doing it. And there’s no point in developing cities and educating people if they are going to be set back at the time of an earthquake.’

“So I’m trying to learn how to pitch this,” Tucker admits.

After graduating from Pomona in 1967 with a degree in physics, Tucker started down an uncertain road toward his future, finding opportunity and chance—rather than deliberate design—to be the determining factors in each new step.

At Pomona, for instance, “it slowly dawned on me throughout the four years that I could go to a physics grad school but it wasn’t going to be a top grad school. Peering a little beyond that, I wasn’t going to get a job in physics, pushing back frontiers. It’s the mantra of physicists, at least at that time, that the best thing in the world was to be a physicist, to do research, to contribute to learning. I realized that I wasn’t going to excel at that.”

So he seized upon an opportunity provided by a family friend, who had found him a summer job in the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. He started working toward a Ph.D. at Scripps in oceanography and applied fluid mechanics. Although he was enchanted by the “really beautiful experiments” and learned important lessons about how to properly conduct research, Tucker became somewhat disillusioned when he realized who was paying for his work and how little it contributed.

“We were studying the properties of seawater under very high pressure and very low temperature, namely at the bottom of the ocean. Who cares? It sounds so totally unimportant to the world. It had a lot of application to submarines. The money was there probably for hiding submarines. I was ignorant of that.”

“The culture in science is that you look to your elders to find out where to get money to do your research, but he was trying to look deeper than that. He was hoping he could put the deeper purpose of science first,” recalls Jim Brune, professor of geophysics at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the man Tucker credits with being his most influential mentor.

They met in a ladies’ bathroom at Scripps where each would claim one of two beds for a brief nap between late-night research and early-morning classes. Over frequent coffees in the snack bar, they forged a friendship that eventually led Tucker to switch his Ph.D. to earth sciences and to look for non-traditional, humanitarian applications for his expertise.

Tucker’s epiphany of sorts happened when Brune took him to the Anza-Borrego Desert to record earthquake tremors. Generally a quiet, understated man, Tucker gets visibly animated when remembering the first night the earth spoke to him.

“We got out there at midnight. He rolled out a cable and the seismograph, which at that time was a smoke drum. It was photograph paper, shiny white, and you take an oily lamp and you spin this drum above the oily lamp and it coats the paper with soot. Then you put this on the machine and there’s a little needle that is just clean, no ink, and the drum runs under it. If the needle isn’t getting any excitation, it just draws a straight line,” he recalls. “It was completely pitch black except there were all these stars, and we were holding this flashlight, watching this straight line draw.

“I said, ‘Oh well, doesn’t look like it’s working.’”

Brune told Tucker to calm down, be quiet and wait.

“Then the classic signature of an earthquake occurred and he (Brune) said, ‘oh, that’s about eight kilometers away and directly below us and I’d say it was a magnitude 1.’ And I was so excited. I had this incredible feeling for the first time of the earth being dynamic; it’s not static at all.”

Brune, whose own work revolved around applying earthquake-mapping techniques in Mexico, became Tucker’s Ph.D. adviser.

“He perceived that I have an altruistic approach to science. He was clearly the kind of student looking for that kind of thing,” says Brune, a member of GHI’s board.

Through Brune, Tucker was offered an opportunity in the mid-1970s that further honed his personal and professional goals. As part of a U.S.-Soviet exchange program initiated during the Nixon era, Tucker lived rather primitively in remote valley in Tajikistan, studying how site conditions—the properties of sediment or rock underneath a building—determine the potential tolerance for an earthquake. The work satisfied a lifelong passion for understanding other cultures and the distance from home allowed various ideas to percolate.

He still expresses surprise that he bought a one-way ticket to Tajikistan.

“I was really escaping. I was so fed up, I had been going to school my whole life,” he says. “I loved it in many ways, but also this whole idea of there being only one path. It was a real treat to get away from all this pressure and let me figure out who I am and what I want to do.”

“It brought out another part of his character,” says Brune. “He just ate up going around to foreign countries, seeing how they were doing things. He is so interested in how governments and culture respond to basic human problems.”

For the next seven years Tucker split his time between his fieldwork in Tajikistan and hanging out with Boston’s Russian Jewish immigrant community while doing postgraduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While his work in Tajikistan “was appreciated for being careful,” it only fueled an ongoing controversy among seismologists regarding the effect of local site conditions on earthquake amplitude.

“Builders hated this,” he concedes. “They think it’s hard enough to have building codes, but to make them site specific? This is a real headache.”

Over the years, he says, his research has been dismissed by some seismologists, embraced by others.

In 1983, Tucker moved to Sacramento to work for the California Geological Survey, then called the Division of Mines and Geology, in charge of state efforts to help local communities manage risk from geologic hazard. Eventually, however, he decided enough good minds were already working on California’s problems. His expertise was needed elsewhere.

“I felt like it was way overcrowded, it was covered,” he says, noting that UC Berkeley, Stanford, Caltech, Scripps and USGS, among others, were focusing prediction and mitigation efforts on California. “Whenever I would come back from Tajikistan, I would stop someplace in the world and just explore. And that’s when it became clear to me how many places were really vulnerable, compared to California.

“I do think I like doing something different,” he admits. “If everyone else is doing it, it isn’t fun.”

He left the state in 1990 to obtain a master’s in Public Policy from Harvard, all the while planning his next move. With the promise of support from OYO Corporation, a Japanese seismic and sonar equipment company whose founder Tucker had befriended and impressed, he founded GHI in 1991.

He chose Quito for a pilot program and spent more than two years working with local officials on mitigation efforts. Part of what GHI does is create “scenarios,” which are essentially fantasy stories that trace a city’s reaction, response and recovery from the onset of the earthquake through the days and months that follow. While the story skeleton is written in his office, it is fleshed out with research from experts and officials in each location into a realistic accounting of a neighborhood’s survival.

The process puts Tucker into contact with everyone from the mayor to the minister of health to the head of the water and sewage departments. Ideally, a team of dedicated citizens and professionals continues GHI’s work after Tucker has left.

In Kathmandu, for instance, the National Society of Earthquake Technology-Nepal formed after Tucker’s arrival and has since been extremely active and successful in retrofitting buildings to withstand earthquakes that previously would have toppled them. The organization deployed masons to Gujarat, India, after a major earthquake there last year to help them improve their rebuilding efforts.

Tucker’s empathy and respect for other cultures is what sets him apart, says Tom Tobin, a consultant on natural hazards and public policy and an adviser to GHI.

In Kathmandu, for example, it became clear to GHI that the priority of local officials was not to fix the schools, which to Tucker and Tobin were so obviously horrifically dangerous. But the subject of schools wasn’t coming up in the meetings. The Nepalese had different post-earthquake priorities, first to fix the bridge connecting them to the airport, second to prepare the dead for burial.

“I don’t know if you went to the international aid agencies and told them you needed white muslin and wood for the funeral pyres, that they’d put money into that,” Tobin says. “But when people respect those local values, they’ll have more stature and influence. The local people who are ultimately responsible for the health and safety of their community are not re-treaded Americans, they’re local people who have gained expertise and commitment to a cause. They’re not Americans and they’re not going to have the same value system we have.

“Because we (GHI) can be sensitive, that then strengthens the plan and the organization and their ability to eventually deal with other issues, like the schools.”

Whether he’s talking to politicians or his peers, Tucker has had to learn how to temper his own passion about his work with the need for credibility. To get the help of other scientists, for example, he has to speak their language, avoiding the temptation to present emotional arguments for his work. Similarly, in working with local governments he has to restrict himself to presenting the facts about the danger they face, and hope they will decide on their own to do something about it.

“People somehow are comfortable saying that people in developing countries should be expected to live at greater risk—that it’s not fair but life is just tougher for people who are poor,” he explains. “Most of the people I’ve been talking to are scientists and everybody gets uneasy if you start moralizing. It should just be facts.

“Before, my pitch was, ‘It’s unfair that we are so much safer and we have all these techniques and somebody should be adapting them.’ Well, that’s just my opinion. And in the world that I spend most of my time in, they want numbers.”

So he’s now more likely to throw out an appalling statistic, buttressed by research.

“A child in Kathmandu is 400 times more likely to die in a school collapsing in an earthquake than a child in Japan. You might accept that a child in Kathmandu is 10 times more likely to die of malnutrition, or diarrhea, or an automobile accident … That’s not fair, that’s not good, but, well, the world isn’t exactly fair. But 400 times!

“That’s the world I grew up in and the world where I have to make my arguments—the rational world. I am doing something kind of moralistic, but I can’t stray too far because the people who I am enlisting and who have been supporting me are rational.

“You have to couch it in: Here are the numbers...if you think that’s fair, then OK, and if not, let’s do something about it.”

—Megan McCaslin is a freelance writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.