Just after 3 a.m. on February 4, 1976, the quiet town of LosÂ Amates, about 100 miles northeast of Guatemala City, sufferedÂ a cataclysmic earthquake. The 39 seconds of shaking leveledÂ 258,000 houses and left 1.2 million people homeless, 77,000Â injured, and more than 23,000 dead.
Ethan Faber, a Mines student who is working on his masterâ€™sÂ degree in geology and geological engineering, wasnâ€™t even bornÂ when the quake happened. But today, if he has anything sayÂ about it, that kind of devastating loss of life will never happenÂ again in Guatemala. In fact, heâ€™s spending a year there applyingÂ his graduate research to a real-world problem.
In 2013, Faber approached his academic advisor Paul Santi,Â a professor in the Department of Geology and GeologicalÂ Engineering, about the possibility of working on a landslideÂ project in a poor community. â€œEthan told me his career goalÂ was to work on humanitarian projects in under-privilegedÂ areas,â€ says Santi. â€œWe talked aboutÂ Guatemalaâ€™s landslide problems, and, asÂ it turns out, we had a good connectionÂ that would make working there a niceÂ fit.â€ Santi and Faber approached EdyÂ Manolo Barillas MS â€™06, a GuatemalanÂ native who returned to his country afterÂ graduating to become the national riskÂ advisor. Barillas told them he wouldÂ welcome the help.
Landslides are all too common inÂ Guatemala, especially after rains.Â â€œDuring extreme years with tropicalÂ storms or hurricanes, a single event canÂ kill 600 people,â€ says Barillas. In 2005,Â landslides triggered by Tropical Storm Stan left hundreds dead inÂ the countryâ€™s highlands region of Panabaj.
Guatemala City is founded on relatively young, thick ash andÂ pumice deposits that arenâ€™t well cemented or welded. â€œIt hasÂ really steep cliffs and canyons that can easily crumble apart.Â And on top of that, the area has a lot of tectonic activity and highÂ precipitation events with hurricanes, and then you get a lot ofÂ landslides on almost any hillside,â€ says Faber.
Most landslide risk reduction in Guatemala has focused onÂ relocationâ€”forcing residents to leave areas considered to beÂ uninhabitable. â€œRelocation is really the only true engineeringÂ solution to landslide risk, because retaining walls or otherÂ engineered mitigation techniques are almost always cost-prohibitive,â€Â says Faber. So, the mitigation ends up costing moreÂ than the houses it protects.
Moving houses is more effectiveâ€”but rarely successful, asÂ residents are hesitant to leave, despite the risk. â€œMany peopleÂ have lived in the community all their lives, and their families liveÂ there,â€ Faber says. â€œItâ€™s not my place to tell them they shouldnâ€™tÂ live there, so the best I can do is to educate them on the basicÂ principles of landslide risk andÂ share ideas on how they can reduceÂ that risk.â€
Thatâ€™s the foundation of Faberâ€™sÂ work: education. After talking withÂ and listening to residents, nonprofitÂ organizations, and government agencies during three visits, FaberÂ built an evaluation tool with diagnostic questions on landslide riskÂ so citizens can quantify their own vulnerability. â€œSome houses areÂ at risk from falling materials, and some houses may fail becauseÂ of loose ground,â€ he says. â€œBy better understanding this, theyÂ can do things like move their bed to the least dangerous side ofÂ their house, remove material from above their homes that couldÂ become dislodged, or install gutters to keep water away fromÂ unstable slopes.â€
In August 2015, Faber left for Guatemala with his wife to beginÂ his work there (she left her job as a mechanical engineer to joinÂ him). And now it appears that his education efforts will continueÂ even after he returns home, as Paul Santi has an incomingÂ masterâ€™s student who has committed to building on Faberâ€™s work.Â â€œItâ€™s been extremely rewarding looking back on what Iâ€™ve started,â€Â Faber says. â€œIâ€™m enjoying looking ahead to see the endlessÂ opportunities awaiting.â€