Huxley’s Rebekah Paci-Green to Lead Research Team to Nepal to Assess Safety of Country’s Remaining Schools After Devastating Earthquake

The powerful earthquake that struck Nepal in April, killing more than 8,000, hit on a Saturday – the single day that Nepalese schoolchildren are not in their classrooms, or the extent of the disaster would have been even more tragic.

In areas close to the earthquake’s epicentre, more than half of the schools were destroyed or are now unusable.

This summer, Rebekah Paci-Green, Western Washington University assistant professor of Environmental Studies and director of the Resilience Institute at Western’s Huxley College of the Environment, will lead a team of researchers to Nepal to assess the structural safety of both the school buildings that didn’t collapse as well as those that didn’t survive the temblor or its aftershocks.

“Had the earthquake struck during school hours, tens of thousands of students and teachers would have died,” Paci-Green said.

According to early damage reports from the country’s Ministry of Education, over 32,000 classrooms were destroyed in the magnitude 7.8 earthquake. The team hopes to discover which buildings and communities fared better so that future school reconstruction can follow their successes.

Most of Nepal’s schools are precariously made. In remote regions, villagers build their own schools out of stone and mud. Even in the larger cities, the government cannot afford to build all the schools needed.

Prior to the year’s earthquake, some organizations and local governments used wire mesh, cement and other local materials to strengthen about 200 school buildings. The National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal has asked Paci-Green and colleague Bishnu Pandey of the British Columbia Institute of Technology to evaluate how well these retrofitted schools performed in the earthquake.

“When my colleague called the principal of one of these retrofitted schools, the principal was excited to say the school survived without even a crack,” Paci-Green said. “One of the teachers even copied the retrofitting technique on his house.”

The hope is that this good performance is true elsewhere. The team will systematically document the damage to retrofitted schools and compare with the damage to nearby un-retrofitted schools.

The team will also conduct a survey of local residents.

“We want to find out whether building earthquake-resistant schools trickles down and changes the way communities construct other buildings,” Paci-Green said. “If it does, then safer school construction can be a strategy for strengthening community resilience.”

Building earthquake-resistant schools and homes is only marginally more expensive than traditional construction in Nepal, but most communities have never been shown how. Rebuilding safer schools may help demonstrate these techniques, but finding the right community engagement approach will be important, Paci-Green said.

Paci-Green, Pandey and others will conduct the school assessments in June and July. Upon return, they will share their findings with the organizations leading reconstruction of schools in Nepal.

Both Paci-Green and Pandey have been instrumental in developing guidelines for community-based school planning and construction in hazard-prone places. They will be tweeting their findings @RPaciGreen and blogging at www.safeschoolconstruction.wordpress.com. 

 

Monday, June 15, 2015 - 11:02am