Being prepared for disasters starts with learning from the past

Two USC Viterbi professors are revisiting historic disasters to build educational infrastructure that will help us prepare for future natural hazards.

September 25, 2019 Avni Shah

The tsunami was one for the history books. A 9.1 magnitude earthquake had struck off the northern tip of Sumatra in Indonesia. Waves traveled across the Indian Ocean at more than 500 mph and hit 14 countries, including Thailand. On the shores of Phuket, locals and tourists alike followed the water outward as it receded, not knowing what was to come next.

When the water came back toward them, it was too late. On that day after Christmas in 2004, more than 5,000 people were killed in Thailand alone.

It is this type of destruction that Erik Johnson and Gisele Ragusa of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, along with Richard Christenson of the University of Connecticut, are exploring as part of their Pacific Rim Earthquake Engineering Mitigation Protective Technologies International Virtual Environment (PREEMPTIVE) projects. The PREEMPTIVE Advanced Studies Institute (ASI), sponsored by the National Science Foundation, integrates virtual learning, cross-cultural exchange and detailed seminars with practical, onsite experience.

“The PREEMPTIVE ASI program provides research-to-practice experiences for advanced graduate students in natural hazards research with a cultural context,” said Ragusa, a professor of engineering practice at the USC Viterbi School. “By being immersed in a country where natural hazards have physical and societal consequences that are often quite dire, the students witness firsthand how their research can facilitate life-relevant changes for real people.”

The program builds on an earlier 2014 grant sponsored by the NSF Science Across Virtual Institutes initiative and aims to prepare the next generation of researchers to identify and address the most critical problems related to creating sustainable and resilient infrastructure. It also provides them with a basis for interdisciplinary collaboration.

These trips bring disasters to life.

Erik Johnson

With a focus on visiting countries that have experienced major natural disasters in the last 20 years, the program kicked off in Costa Rica in February, followed by a weeklong institute in Thailand this past June. The grant — which will support 80 U.S.-based PhD students to participate in international exchanges — will span three years and four additional venues, including New Zealand, Japan, Puerto Rico and Chile.

“These trips bring disasters to life,” said Johnson, a professor of civil engineering in USC Viterbi’s Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “You can see a picture of a site or you can see it up close and from different angles, sit and talk with a local expert and learn why it was designed the way it was — and why it hasn’t been rebuilt. It’s more real this way.”

Disaster preparedness means learning from the past

USC Viterbi PhD candidate Adam Keen, whose research focuses on coastal oceanography, participated in both of the first two PREEMPTIVE ASIs. By looking at damaged infrastructure and exploring the impact of disasters, the students and faculty gathered in Thailand and Costa Rica hoped to gain a better understanding of not just what worked and what didn’t but of what local experts wished they had known ahead of the events.

In Phuket in June, Keen — along with nine other PhD students from universities across the U.S. and local students from Chulalongkorn and Kasem Bundit universities — explored the damage of the 2004 tsunami. They visited one site where it had washed over the shore and examined artifacts held at a museum that helped demonstrate the tsunami’s colossal destruction.

“In Thailand, the thing that stuck out is how natural hazard events sparked a national dialogue. Before the 2004 tsunami, they weren’t even aware tsunamis were an issue,” Keen said. “This is part of the reason so many died. Now, they are beginning to ask questions like ‘How do we prepare for natural hazards?’ and ‘What can we do as a community or country?’”

Program participants represented a diverse range of academic areas, including cultural anthropology, civil and mechanical engineering, psychology, communications and K-12 education. A key component of the ASIs is learning how to collaborate across different technical disciplines, beginning with understanding how to integrate different perspectives into a discussion from its outset.

“By immersing themselves in real-life scenarios, the students begin to understand that their research is situated in physical, economic, cultural and sociopolitical contexts, and that each of these elements is of equal importance,” Ragusa said.

Preaching preparedness by investing in infrastructure

In February, prior to visiting Thailand, students and faculty traveled to Costa Rica. They visited one of several active volcanoes and examined a number of bridges damaged in the 1991 Limón earthquake that have yet to be repaired. One of the bridges they examined continues to support trucks bearing heavy loads, despite a hinge that left the entire structure’s stability in question. At times, rocks would be hammered into the gap in the structure as a makeshift reinforcement.

To Johnson, it was clear that one more quake would completely shatter the structure. If it did so, San José would be completely cut off from the port and thus lose access to its largest source of goods transported to or from other countries.

One of the key similarities between Costa Rica, Thailand and the U.S. observed by participants was the need for greater investment in infrastructure. It was also clear communication strategies were needed to emphasize and spread the importance of preparedness and clarify which steps should be taken in the event of a major disaster.

What might not be an emergency today could be one in the near future.


“What might not be an emergency today could be one in the near future,” Johnson said. “It’s important to examine these issues on a global scale and bring back lessons learned that parallel problems we have here.”

In many cultures, disaster preparedness is not a part of the academic, political or social framework. A large reason for this is that most disasters happen after a long period of dormancy.

“People are still learning how to navigate issues like how to communicate to their families that they are safe,” Keen said. Generations grow up between major events and feel no impetus to prepare for the next disaster. Since the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, there has been more focus on research and on identifying better evacuation routes and other strategies to mitigate such a large number of deaths.

“From a societal point of view, the key takeaway is: we need to educate people and we need to be prepared,” Johnson said. “This links directly back to Los Angeles: Are we prepared for the next disaster? Hurricane Katrina was a mess. Are we going to be any better off when the next major earthquake hits?”

The PREEMPTIVE program will continue with its next ASI in New Zealand in January. Twenty-five graduated students from universities including USC, the University of Connecticut, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California, San Diego participated in the first two trips. Additional partner universities included the University of Costa Rica.

This work is funded by the National Science Foundation under grants OISE 18-29085/18-28948 (Fahmida Chowdhury, Program Director).