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Lesson of the Day: Safe Schools Save Lives

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

In this back-to-school season, consider the child in Kathmandu, Nepal who is 400 times more likely to be killed at school by an earthquake than a child in Kobe, Japan. Comparable earthquakes are many times more deadly in developing countries than in the US and Japan, where construction to seismic design codes is routine. GeoHazards International (GHI) aims to close that gap, and we hope you can help.

Do you know the saying "it is better to prepare 5 years too early than 5 minutes too late"? This speaks to the urgency of GHI's work to prepare schools. Millions of children live in regions prone to dangerous earthquakes, and they spend their days at school.

Valentin Valiente Elementary School after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, Cariaco,Venezuela, 1997.

So-called “modern” school buildings often turn lethal during earthquakes. Seven such schools collapsed in Cariaco, Venezuela in a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, killing 43 children. When we took the photo above, a man told us that he had tried to dig in the rubble for survivors, including his nephew whom he heard calling. Police stopped him because a rescue team was coming---but it arrived too late. Two years earlier, the local government had declined GHI’s offer to develop a plan that would reduce the region's known earthquake vulnerability, including unsafe schools and limited emergency response.

Sadly, school tragedies persist. The 2010 Haiti earthquake destroyed or severely damaged 80% of schools in Port-au-Prince and 4,000 schools in total. In the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, 20,000 children were killed and an equal number seriously injured in schools. At least 20,000 schoolchildren died in the 2008 Sichuan, China earthquake. Spitak, Armenia lost a generation of children when school buildings collapsed in a 1988 earthquake. Much can be done to avoid such loss.

GHI team members leading a Retrofit Capacity Building Program for engineers at Ludlow Castle Government School, New Delhi, India.

How does GHI prepare schools “5 years early”? We share technical expertise. For example, we train local engineers to assess building safety, and we mentor them as they design and construct seismic retrofit projects. We teach and implement safer building methods with masons, carpenters, and contractors.

Our work also targets hazards posed by objects, both inside and outside, that can topple onto students. We teach people how to recognize and mitigate the risks. These changes can immediately improve safety, and at modest cost.

Can you spot 3 falling hazards in this photo? Hint: one is high, one is wide, one is repeating. (Answers at bottom.)

Safety drills and evacuation plans are central to GH's earthquake training for students and teachers. These measures, combined with safe structures, will some day save children’s lives or save them from injury.

Our work has improved schools in India, Bhutan, Pakistan, Nepal, Ecuador, Turkey, Peru, Central Asia, Mexico, Indonesia and Chile. You can help prepare even more schools, before an earthquake delivers disaster, by supporting our continuing efforts. The tragedy is to be “5 minutes late.”

Falling Hazards Answers:

1) the unsecured water tank 2) falling bricks from the unsecured masonry 3) the heavy, poorly attached sun shades.


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