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 regions 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 hazardspoverty,
disease, malnutritionits a daunting challenge to convince
people of the real threat posed by a hypothetical earthquake.
Im trying to prepare them for the disaster they dont
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 GHIs
work within the scientific community and among funders.
Its a validation of what were doing, he says.
In my professional world, people receive tenure, promotions, or
IPOs based on whats 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.
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.
Weve 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 supportgovernment
grants, foundation and corporate support, endowment income and membership
dues. The lack of immediate gratification from Tuckers work makes
it hard to pitch.
I fear that a donor thinks to himself: Ive got a million
dollars I want to make the biggest difference I can in the world. Now
lets see, theres AIDS, theres nuclear proliferation,
theres water quality, theres 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, its
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 cant distinguish all the grant proposals.
What youre doing is not a huge worldwide problem but youre
the only game in town doing it. And theres no point in developing
cities and educating people if they are going to be set back at the time
of an earthquake.
So Im 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 chancerather than deliberate designto 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 wasnt going
to be a top grad school. Peering a little beyond that, I wasnt going
to get a job in physics, pushing back frontiers. Its 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 wasnt 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.
Tuckers 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.
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 theres
a little needle that is just clean, no ink, and the drum runs under it.
If the needle isnt 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, doesnt look like its working.
Brune told Tucker to calm down, be quiet and wait.
Then the classic signature of an earthquake occurred and he (Brune)
said, oh, thats about eight kilometers away and directly below
us and Id 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;
its not static at all.
Brune, whose own work revolved around applying earthquake-mapping techniques
in Mexico, became Tuckers 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 GHIs 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 conditionsthe
properties of sediment or rock underneath a buildingdetermine 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.
the next seven years Tucker split his time between his fieldwork in Tajikistan
and hanging out with Bostons 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 its
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 Californias
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 thats 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 isnt fun.
He left the state in 1990 to obtain a masters 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 citys 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 neighborhoods
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 GHIs work
after Tucker has left.
In Kathmandu, for instance, the National Society of Earthquake Technology-Nepal
formed after Tuckers 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.
Tuckers 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 wasnt
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 dont know if you went to the international aid agencies
and told them you needed white muslin and wood for the funeral pyres,
that theyd put money into that, Tobin says. But when
people respect those local values, theyll 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, theyre
local people who have gained expertise and commitment to a cause. Theyre
not Americans and theyre not going to have the same value system
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.
hes 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 riskthat its
not fair but life is just tougher for people who are poor, he explains.
Most of the people Ive been talking to are scientists and
everybody gets uneasy if you start moralizing. It should just be facts.
Before, my pitch was, Its unfair that we are so much
safer and we have all these techniques and somebody should be adapting
them. Well, thats just my opinion. And in the world that I
spend most of my time in, they want numbers.
So hes now more likely to throw out an appalling statistic, buttressed
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
Thats not fair, thats
not good, but, well, the world isnt exactly fair. But 400 times!
Thats the world I grew up in and the world where I have to
make my argumentsthe rational world. I am doing something kind of
moralistic, but I cant 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 thats
fair, then OK, and if not, lets do something about it.
Megan McCaslin is a freelance
writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.