Engineering A Safer Caribbean
There’s a great deal of satisfaction to be gained from using your engineering knowledge to solve a critical problem. When you can solve two problems with one elegant yet simple solution- that’s even better. That is exactly what Dr. Reginald DesRoches is doing in Haiti as he helps his home country recover from one of the most devastating earthquakes in history.
DesRoches, who is a professor and associate chair in Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been studying earthquakes and their aftermath since he was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck. A native of Haiti who moved to the United States as an infant, he was one of the first researchers on the ground following the disaster in 2010, using his expertise to aid in the massive response and recovery effort.
“I initially went down just a week after the earthquake to do what we call rapid building assessments where I was part of a small team that went into different buildings to see if they were safe or not,” said DesRoches. “We cleared approximately 110 buildings in a week, including numerous- hospitals, schools, and warehouses. We’d go in and look at the structural system and give it a thumbs up or thumbs down essentially.
“Subsequently I took a number of research-related trips with several groups, bringing them there to see what we could learn about what happened, why so many structures failed, and what we could do better.”
Two Problems, One Solution
One of his conclusions was that Haiti faced two major engineering challenges- the island nation was buried under almost 25 million cubic yards of concrete that was covering land where cities and towns used to stand, and there was a lack of high-quality materials to use in the reconstruction process.
“Given that they’re a small island it was hard to find a place to put the debris,” said DesRoches. “Then when you consider the logistics of trucks and the general lack of equipment, it was just sitting there for months and months after the earthquake.”
Working with his colleague, Dr. Kimberly Kurtis, they decided to look into the possibility of repurposing the debris as building material for new construction.
“My colleague and I went there and we collected samples and looked at crushing the concrete rubble and reusing it as aggregate in reinforced concrete. It’s been very effective so far. We’ve gotten great results. Strength-wise it’s two to three times stronger than what was already being used in Haiti and it’s comparable to what is specified for use in the U.S. We’re trying to codify that work and come up with a systematic way for people to use the rubble. It’s still there in most cases, or it’s in landfills.”
The inventive recycling project solves two problems at once- it cleans up the rubble that’s been in the way of recovery efforts for almost two years and it gives builders a plentiful supply of stronger, safer building materials. The plan now is to document the process of reconstituting the crushed concrete so it can be used by local builders on a widespread basis.
A separate project that DesRoches has started as an offshoot of his work in Haiti is the Caribbean Hazard Assessment, Mitigation, and Preparedness Project, or CHAMP. Due to the prevalence of major fault lines and the frequency of hurricanes in the area, the Caribbean is unfortunately ripe for another disaster. CHAMP’s role is to get an understanding of how prepared Caribbean nations are, determine whether they are at risk for a major event, and to come up with recommendations for how to best prepare for an eventual major earthquake or hurricane.
The project, which has already received funding from a non-profit organization, is a collaborative effort between the Georgia Tech schools of civil engineering, industrial engineering and the College of Architecture and involves more than 20 students.
”We’re taking a multi-faceted approach to this project looking at hazards, inventory, building materials, design codes, the implementation of codes. The group from industrial engineering is looking at logistics-based issues, such as how well prepared these countries are to respond to a disaster, and if they have effective emergency preparedness/response plans? Trips have already been taken to Puerto Rico and more are planned for Belize, Trinidad, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and possibly Cuba.
An Entrepreneurial Spirit
DesRoches has been impressed with the performance of Georgia Tech students in the field where they’ve had to overcome cultural and language barriers as they search for ways to improve the quality of life in the Caribbean. What impresses him the most is their creativity and desire to make a difference.
“We have some really sharp students who think of things that we don’t think of as faculty members,” he says. “They really think outside of the box. Our students aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. It’s been eye-opening to see the things our students want to get involved with and get excited about. We find that a lot of the students involved in this project love the global aspect of it. They like going to all of the countries and learning about other cultures. It’s great to see that they’re so open-minded.”
As many Tech students will tell you, the ability to get out in the field and gain real-life work experience instead of spending all day every day in a classroom is part of what makes a Georgia Tech engineering degree special. There’s a lot to be said for hands-on problem solving in an environment that forces students to adapt.
“I think they want to be adaptive in terms of how they do things,” says DesRoches.” It’s a great trait. It’s a very entrepreneurial approach and I think that’s a characteristic that has really come out on these projects. They want to find their own ways to do things, and that’s good.”
If all goes well that entrepreneurial spirit will be lead to significant improvements in the way Caribbean nations prepare for natural disasters, and that preparation could result in countless lives being saved.