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Earthquake resiliency expert gives assessment from the ground in Morocco


In Morocco, communities are still suffering after a 6.8 magnitude earthquake earlier this month left nearly 3,000 people dead and thousands more injured. That's according to the EU's Emergency Response Coordination Center. In addition to the human toll, thousands of buildings were destroyed, and major questions remain about how to rebuild and house those people who have been displaced. Kit Miyamoto has thought a lot about this. He's a structural engineer who specializes in earthquake resiliency, and he's currently in Morocco, traveling around the villages and assessing damage from the earthquake. When I caught up with him from Marrakesh, I asked him, what's been standing out so far?

KIT MIYAMOTO: First of all, if the villages or structures built on top of rock area, like a bedrock - you know? - versus the soft soil in a bottom valley, it has a huge difference in performance. So that's something that we noticed the first thing, OK? And secondly, this area been obviously earthquake-prone for millions of years - you know? - naturally, right? So interesting part of it, actually, believe or not, traditional architecture here evolved throughout these earthquakes over the centuries. So if it built right way, like really follow the tradition way, it actually performed really well.

CHANG: Interesting. The more traditional techniques of building these homes is actually more secure during earthquakes.

MIYAMOTO: Exactly. For example, where they built a roof, roof is made of wood and you actually put this wood or timber almost penetrate through the wall. So when the shaking happens, it doesn't fall off. So if you built like that actually, they're almost indestructible, actually, because such a solid, solid structure...

CHANG: Right.

MIYAMOTO: ...You know? But unfortunately, over the years, you know, many builders told me the owners want to cut costs, so therefore, they don't want to pay for it. So builders cut corners in some of the villages we visited. It's pretty amazing. I mean, one village we visited about - it was about 500 people used to live there. Twenty percent died. We are talking about, you know, only 400 left. It's just amazing. Just that - earthquake was 11 p.m. And here people do stay up late, so, you know, it was a good thing 11 p.m. If it was 1 a.m., 3 a.m. probably more people died, you know?

CHANG: 'Cause they would have been in bed and not knowing to escape.

MIYAMOTO: That's right. That's exactly correct.

CHANG: How much of a risk are aftershocks at this point?

MIYAMOTO: Very big.

CHANG: And how much is that complicating efforts to provide safe homes for thousands of displaced people right now?

MIYAMOTO: It's very - risk is high. I mean, aftershock usually last - for magnitude 6.8, it will last probably one year. And sometimes aftershock's even bigger than the first one. That's why people pretty scared. They don't want to go back home yet, even as some of the, you know, village buildings are completely fine. There's no cracks. But they don't want to go there, which I completely understand that.

CHANG: So as you're looking to help these communities rebuild there, how hard do you think it will be to balance the desire to preserve the cultural aspects of so much of the architecture there that has been destroyed while also making them safer?

MIYAMOTO: I think that they both coexist. If you really look carefully how the ancients, you know, built, you know, they understand seismic risk. They understand how they build things, you know, to preserve lives. You know, they know how to do that. We just got to make sure that type of a very detailed understand - you know, nature of it - you know, what they're doing there - to extract the information and then train the other masons and contractors in the area.

CHANG: And as these communities embark on the huge challenge of rebuilding, what is most needed right now?

MIYAMOTO: I think money. I was talking to the village elders. Maybe 50% of the houses there is complete collapsed, right? Gone. And they lost something about, like, 40 people out of 300 people. I mean, just bad. They said that they are going to stay. They want to rebuild. My question was, do you have enough money to reconstruct? They said no. It's a poor area. We estimate about the - somewhere between $300,000 to $500,000 to reconstruct whole thing, whole village. I mean, yes, that's a lot of money. But also, if you look at how many people impact in that, it's not much. You know, talking about 500 people here, you know what I mean? So I think that each of us have to contribute, little by little, to make this happen because this disaster is huge.

CHANG: That is Kit Miyamoto. He's a structural engineer who's currently assessing earthquake damage in Morocco. Thank you so much for spending even this small amount of time with us.

MIYAMOTO: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.