Sitting on a decrepit wood plank floor thousands of miles from home in the Indian Himalayas, my life changed in a single moment. In the middle of a meal, a tremendous rumble began that consumed the walls around me. Startled, terrified, and confused, my friend and I ran from the building to find nearby structures being thrashed about like rowboats in a tempest; there was no safe shelter. In the weeks following this 6.9 magnitude earthquake, I would continue to witness the devastation of this disaster in the mountainous state of Sikkim. Homes in ruins, bridges in pieces, and livelihoods destroyed. Each community we visited in the aftermath further demonstrated the inadequate engineering preparation and slow, disorganized path to recovery for such an event. My outlook on disasters, especially those in developing countries, was changed forever. As I walked back to our hotel in darkness, I was stunned by the sights that surrounded me. There was ubiquitous chaos – hundreds in the streets, people crying, and a collective fear that I have not encountered since that evening. This was not my home, yet I felt a binding connection to these people and this community. Many had lost an entire life’s work in mere minutes. While I realized that I could not do anything to stop hazards such as this one from occurring, I could ensure that the rebuilding was done in a manner to safeguard future lives and bring back a sense of normalcy.
The experience I describe above would ultimately be the deciding factor for the career I have chosen. In the wake of this event, I could no longer sit idly by while similar occurrences impacted the lives of millions of people across the globe. This event was not however my first encounter with disasters. Growing up in southern California I became well acquainted with earthquakes, wildfires, and droughts. My home was periodically rattled from the San Andres fault, my school closed from the thick smoke of wildfires, and I was made aware of the precarious drought conditions. I never witnessed true devastation though – other than missing a few school days or hearing of damage on the news. This changed when I made my first trip abroad to India in 2010. As a part of a team from Engineers Without Borders-USA, we had established a partnership with a small, remote village in the Himalayas. Just weeks before our arrival though a resident of the village was killed from a landslide. For the first time the impacts weren’t just distanced images being shown on a tv screen. I was talking to people who knew this individual and had to cope with the consequences. The purpose of the trip also lent well to my realization that my knowledge could assist communities such as this one through improving their infrastructure in order to mitigate the effects of these events.
As fate would have it disaster seems to follow me. Having made the decision to pursue my graduate studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, less than a month after my arrival disaster struck. In less than 3 days, Boulder Country received 17 inches (430mm) of rain – close its annual average. The flooding that ensued took 8 lives and caused nearly $2 billion in damage. It was the heaviest recorded rainfall in Colorado history. In 2013, I worked with the non-governmental organization Build Change as a field engineer in response to Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in the central Philippines. Assisting with oversight of design and construction of permanent housing, my work put me at the front lines of early recovery efforts in the wake of the largest storm to ever make landfall. Through this experience, I have come to appreciate the complexities associated with disaster response and recovery. Following the completion of my doctoral studies, I felt a calling to yet again return to the central Philippines. I am currently serving as a Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Program Officer with the U.S. Peace Corps where I am working in partnership with the Municipality of Carigara, Leyte to improve geospatial coverage, hazard mapping, and early warning systems.
As the effects of climate change continue to manifest, disaster events are causing increased damage. Events such as Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), the strongest storm in recorded history to make landfall, sustaining wind speeds of 196 mph and gusts up to 235 mph, is just one example. As an applied researcher, I believe we need to invest in our infrastructure and preparedness programs to mitigate future impacts. Through this website I hope to share some of my experiences and work in this area in an effort to raise awareness on the reality of our shared future.