Adrian Tola returns to Ecuador following destructive earthquake

“It was hard to see it in person and I think it will always be hard,” said doctoral student Adrian Tola about his recent trip to assess the damage following the April earthquake that hit his home country of Ecuador. “I think one thing I realized is that whatever career you choose has to have meaning. In my case, I’m studying structural engineering, and I’m studying very interesting topics, but I have to use that knowledge to help people.”

Tola served as part of a team that visited five cities in Ecuador with the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) through its “Learning from Earthquakes” program. The program sends multidisciplinary teams of researchers after earthquakes to investigate and learn from the damaging effects observed in the field. The team traveled to analyze the damage from the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the country on April 16, 2016. That earthquake has been called Ecuador’s worst natural disaster in decades, resulting in in 661 fatalities and more than 27,732 injuries.

“I was anxious to go see what happened and see the damage,” Tola said. “At the same time though, I kept asking myself ‘how can I even help?’”

The intention of EERI for this particular trip was to make an assessment of the damage caused by the earthquake. The organization’s vision is to create a world in which potential earthquake losses are widely understood and for which prudent steps have been taken to address those risks. The team that went to Ecuador was made up of engineers interested in different aspects of engineering in hopes of getting a comprehensive assessment of the damage. Others on the team included Forrest Lanning from Miyamoto International, Mei Kuen Liu, Senior Engineer with Forell/Elsesser, Arturo Schultz, professor of Civil Engineering at University of Minnesota, Gabriela Haro, PhD student in Civil Engineering at North Carolina State University, and Hector Monzon Despang and Alberto Jose Monzon from the Guatemalan Association of Structural Engineers.  Tola is specifically interested in low cycle fatigue of steel members, classic and innovative structural systems to withstand earthquakes, solutions for seismic retrofit of buildings, and involvement in regulatory seismic codes.

The coast of Ecuador has a lot of seismic activity because there are two plates pushing against each other. The country lies above the boundary between the Nazca and South American tectonic plates that grind past each other, causing strong earthquakes such as this one.

According to Tola, one of the most interesting things that they noticed was that the access to significant areas in the cities of Manta and Portoviejo had to be closed to public due to the extensive damage in the buildings at these locations, and also, due to the potential additional damage that could be caused by aftershocks.  These areas looked like “ghost towns”.

Tola put particular attention in the performance of hospitals, and although  none of them had fully collapsed, they had significant damage in non-structural components, such as interior walls and mechanical equipment. “None of them collapsed, but none of them were functional afterward, which is unacceptable,” said Tola. When primary facilities such as this aren’t functional, it creates a strain on where to bring patients and earthquake victims.

The main goal of the team was to evaluate the damage in an effort to prevent the extensive destruction in future earthquakes. Tola’s technical knowledge allowed him to look at collapse buildings, and evaluate possible reasons that trigger their collapse.. “As a structural engineer, it is my interest to study the potential reasons of why buildings collapse in these events, so that, those factors can be prevented in the construction of new infrastructure or properly assessed for the case of existent buildings.  I always want the chance to recognize why a building collapsed and how to solve that,” he said. “But at some point, the human part becomes more important.”  Tola mentioned to be greatly impacted by the human aspects originated by this tragedy.

He admitted that his reaction to the damage was completely unexpected. “I’ve seen, through my coursework, pictures of earthquake damage and I’ve always assessed it from a strictly engineering standpoint, but actually watching it and seeing it in person is a completely different reaction. It is scary,” he said.

While Tola’s family is not from the coast of Ecuador and wasn’t directly impacted by this earthquake, it still was tough to see his home country in such destruction. “It is enough to make part of your life different, especially my motivation to study structural engineering,” he noted.

Tola hopes to have the opportunity again in the future to travel following an earthquake and help the affected country in whatever way he can.