Just after 3 a.m. on February 4, 1976, the quiet town of Los Amates, about 100 miles northeast of Guatemala City, suffered a cataclysmic earthquake. The 39 seconds of shaking leveled 258,000 houses and left 1.2 million people homeless, 77,000 injured, and more than 23,000 dead.
Ethan Faber, a Mines student who is working on his master’s degree in geology and geological engineering, wasn’t even born when the quake happened. But today, if he has anything say about it, that kind of devastating loss of life will never happen again in Guatemala. In fact, he’s spending a year there applying his graduate research to a real-world problem.
In 2013, Faber approached his academic advisor Paul Santi, a professor in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering, about the possibility of working on a landslide project in a poor community. “Ethan told me his career goal was to work on humanitarian projects in under-privileged areas,” says Santi. “We talked about Guatemala’s landslide problems, and, as it turns out, we had a good connection that would make working there a nice fit.” Santi and Faber approached Edy Manolo Barillas MS ’06, a Guatemalan native who returned to his country after graduating to become the national risk advisor. Barillas told them he would welcome the help.
Landslides are all too common in Guatemala, especially after rains. “During extreme years with tropical storms or hurricanes, a single event can kill 600 people,” says Barillas. In 2005, landslides triggered by Tropical Storm Stan left hundreds dead in the country’s highlands region of Panabaj.
Guatemala City is founded on relatively young, thick ash and pumice deposits that aren’t well cemented or welded. “It has really steep cliffs and canyons that can easily crumble apart. And on top of that, the area has a lot of tectonic activity and high precipitation events with hurricanes, and then you get a lot of landslides on almost any hillside,” says Faber.
Most landslide risk reduction in Guatemala has focused on relocation—forcing residents to leave areas considered to be uninhabitable. “Relocation is really the only true engineering solution to landslide risk, because retaining walls or other engineered mitigation techniques are almost always cost-prohibitive,” says Faber. So, the mitigation ends up costing more than the houses it protects.
Moving houses is more effective—but rarely successful, as residents are hesitant to leave, despite the risk. “Many people have lived in the community all their lives, and their families live there,” Faber says. “It’s not my place to tell them they shouldn’t live there, so the best I can do is to educate them on the basic principles of landslide risk and share ideas on how they can reduce that risk.”
That’s the foundation of Faber’s work: education. After talking with and listening to residents, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies during three visits, Faber built an evaluation tool with diagnostic questions on landslide risk so citizens can quantify their own vulnerability. “Some houses are at risk from falling materials, and some houses may fail because of loose ground,” he says. “By better understanding this, they can do things like move their bed to the least dangerous side of their house, remove material from above their homes that could become dislodged, or install gutters to keep water away from unstable slopes.”
In August 2015, Faber left for Guatemala with his wife to begin his work there (she left her job as a mechanical engineer to join him). And now it appears that his education efforts will continue even after he returns home, as Paul Santi has an incoming master’s student who has committed to building on Faber’s work. “It’s been extremely rewarding looking back on what I’ve started,” Faber says. “I’m enjoying looking ahead to see the endless opportunities awaiting.”