5 April 2010

My mission as a scientist shaken by Haiti fieldwork

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Andrew Freed setting up a GPS receiver in a tent city in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (Image courtesy of Andrew Freed).

Guest post: Andrew Freed, Associate Professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Purdue University, on his experience in Haiti following the January 12, 2010 earthquake.

As a geophysicist who spends most of his time staring into a computer screen, I do not generally conduct fieldwork, let alone in a country that has just been devastated by an earthquake. But, following the January 2010 earthquake that killed over 200,000 people in Haiti, I and several colleagues took part in a geodetic survey of Haiti, from which I recently returned.

This was a completely new experience for me on many levels, and it changed the way I view my mission as a scientist. The objective of the fieldwork was to use GPS to measure ground deformation following the earthquake to determine what portion of what fault slipped and by how much. Such information can help us understand how the earthquake altered seismic hazards in the region, which remain high. But the fieldwork turned into something so much more. It became an outreach mission to inform a poorly educated population about the tectonics of their country, the seismic hazards they will continue to face, and what to do in case of an earthquake.

The lack of education regarding earthquakes in Haiti is alarming. Though no major earthquakes have occurred in the country for 150 years, the potential for such events is well known within the scientific community outside of Haiti, which briefed the Haitian government as recently as 2008 that a magnitude 7+ earthquake was expected to occur in the Port-au-Prince area, though we could not say when. Yet prior to January, most Haitians were oblivious to this threat, many never having heard the term “earthquake”.

This lack of education would prove deadly for many. Haitians have lived their lives with two primary hazards, hurricanes and civil unrest, and have been taught since childhood that the best thing to do if caught outside when peril strikes, is to head indoors. A significant number of Haitians told me of family members and friends who were outside when the earthquake struck, followed their instincts and ran indoors, then perishing when the building collapsed.

In contrast, consider the story of a Haitian engineer holding a staff meeting when she felt moderate shaking associated with the arrival of the P-wave, the first seismic wave to arrive after an earthquake. The P-wave will be followed seconds later (timing depends on the distance from the earthquake) by much larger surface waves. Recognizing that more significant shaking may be imminent, she hustled her staff of 15 out of the building just as the surface waves hit and collapsed the building into a heap of rubble. All survived.

Haitians are a remarkable people. Upon my arrival it was obvious that their country was devastatingly poor and struggling long before being shattered by the earthquake. Yet I found the Haitians to be resilient, incredibly hospitable, and perhaps most unexpectedly, optimistic.

I lived within a tent city for the first several days before heading out to the countryside to make measurements. Each morning and each evening the residents, who were highly spiritual like most Haitians I met, gathered in song and prayer, with sermons on working together as a community and of better times to come. It made me wonder how my neighbors and I would respond to such tragedy. I am not sure that song and optimism would follow. This only made me more determined to help these people in any small way that I could.

After giving away our tents and a good amount of food, my colleagues and I headed to the countryside to begin taking measurements. I worked with graduate student D. Sarah Stamps and Haitian engineer Macly Jeannite. Whenever we had time while our instruments were collecting data, we looked for opportunities to educate the local population about seismic hazards. We visited high schools, sat down with displaced university students, talked live on Haitian radio, and even went live on Haitian television (we wrote about the experience on our blog).

Taking part in the Haiti survey was a rewarding, powerful experience that has changed my perspective on earthquake research — the science must go hand-in-hand with outreach or the knowledge we gain could go for naught. Now as I and my colleagues move forward in our research, we plan related outreach activities with as much vigor as the technical aspects and with a new sense of purpose and urgency.