Buildings are often the most obvious structural casualties caused by earthquakes like the one that hit Haiti in January, but just as vital are utilities and services that are lifelines for communities trying to recover.
Dr. Mark Pickett, UT professor of civil engineering, is part of a team from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) that traveled to Haiti Feb. 28 for a weeklong assessment of not only buildings, but also electrical systems, water and waste water lines, fuel and natural gas lines, transportation systems, hospitals and other utility lifelines critical to Haiti’s recovery.
“We do this to get information out to the engineering community so that future natural disasters have less impact on people,” Pickett said. “What I learn I bring back into the classroom to show students the good and the bad of civil engineering.
“What might seem like dry topics to a civil engineering student just beginning his or her education can literally be a matter of life and death.”
Pickett has been a member of the ASCE’s Technical Council on Lifeline Earthquake Engineering since 1988 and has conducted similar assessments at several earthquake sites, including San Francisco in 1989, North Ridge, Los Angeles in 1994, Turkey in 1999 and Peru in 2007. He also assisted in assessments in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Pickett said his focus has traditionally been on hospitals, how they fare structurally following an earthquake, and how the various utilities feeding those hospitals survive.
“In addition to electric, water and sewage, you look at the fire suppression systems, the medical systems. Most hospitals use a variety of gases for various purposes; these gases must be stored in an earthquake-safe manner,” Pickett said. “But you also look at the roads and transportation systems to and from and inside a hospital.”
Pickett said that one of the major problems in New Orleans was the inability of replacement hospital workers to get to hospitals to relieve clinicians and staff trapped there during the initial storm.
Dr. Nagi Naganathan, dean of the College of Engineering, said Pickett’s involvement with the Technical Council on Lifeline Earthquake Engineering team was just one more example of professors in the college using experiences outside the classroom to educate students about the realities of the field they are entering.
“Civil engineers have a tremendous responsibility to society as the structures they design form the core of the world’s infrastructure,” Naganathan said. “Dr. Pickett’s effort provides an outstanding example of how we can turn tragedy into a learning experience that will save lives in the future.”
For more information on the ASCE effort in Haiti, click here.