GeoHazards International president Brian Tucker on how to come up with innovative solutions for disaster relief.

The most innovative and practical thinkers of our time.
Aug. 1 2011 12:52 PM

A Q&A With GeoHazards International President Brian Tucker

The civil engineer explains the origins of innovative solutions for disaster relief.

Slate's list of the 25 Americans who combine inventive genius and practicality—our best real-world problem solvers. Read more about how we chose them.

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Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

You have an unconventional strategy of hiring local people to do quake mitigation work instead of doing it yourselves. Where did you develop that approach?

Our first project was in Quito, Ecuador. We had wonderful local partners. We accomplished a great deal together, but once we left, the local people had their own permanent jobs, and our project no longer existed, and there wasn't any momentum. What I learned from there was, next time I want the project to increase the visibility of a local organization and its capability to continue. So that's what we did in Nepal. Our partners there became renowned throughout Nepal and the region and carried on the work long after we left.

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In Indonesia, you've come up with an idea to build elevated parks where people can congregate to escape a tsunami. How did you get that idea?

We collaborated with Stanford on a lecture series where we brought in experts in tsunami risk reduction. One lecture was about a study of vertical evacuation structures that Japan had developed. We took some students down to Padang to investigate the options, and we realized that these vertical-evacuation parks were a great option. We also need to multiply the number of bridges across waterways and make pedestrian overpasses more commodious so people could go up there. You have to have solutions that are also useful when there's no tsunami. These solutions emerge from talking to lots of people, going to the place, finding out what works or doesn't.

You've managed to get corporations to fund a lot of your work. Bechtel has helped you with a project in India, and Swiss Re supports your work in India, Peru, and Indonesia. How have you done that?

Bechtel has a lot of engineers in India who really want to use their talents to help the people they live with. So the management of Bechtel considers it a win-win situation. They're making their employees happy. The employees do it on their Saturdays. The employees so much want to use their education to help their neighborhoods that it makes them happier employees, and it makes them proud of Bechtel. Bechtel gets some PR, but it's not like this helps them get a job to build a power plant.

Swiss Re has been very generous. They are a company about evaluating and managing risks. Deep down, they want to encourage people to live in a way that avoids losses. Swiss Re isn't going to sell anything to people in the mountains of the Andes. None of the people we're working with in Indonesia or Peru buy insurance at all. But Swiss Re has the right mentality: They think about infrequent, high-consequence events. That's hard for most people to get their brain around, but they get that. And the Swiss are generous about thinking of developing countries. It makes their employees feel good, and it's consistent with their corporate philosophy.

What's your next project?

We have a proposal to rank the seismic safety of hotels in earthquake-prone cities. We want to create an inducement for owners to make their hotels safe. Last week I walked around the ruins of the Hotel Montana in Port Au Prince, where [hundreds of] businessmen and Haitian society leaders died. If we had made known the vulnerability of that hotel in advance, or made known the safety of a nearby hotel, these lives might not have been lost.

To learn more about Tucker's work and what can be done to save lives in future natural disasters, watch his speech to the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

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