Degenkolb engineer Gordy Wray and Perkins Eastman architect Stephen Forneris prepare to assess building conditions in Portoviejo, Ecuador, after the April 16, 2016, earthquake.
Olivier Auverlau Degenkolb engineer Gordy Wray and Perkins Eastman architect Stephen Forneris prepare to assess building conditions in Portoviejo, Ecuador, after the April 16, 2016, earthquake.

On April 16, Ecuador was struck by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, the country’s worst natural disaster since 1949. Nearly 700 people were killed and approximately 12,500 were injured, and more than 26,000 others were displaced. A week later, I traveled there with two of my colleagues from Perkins Eastman, as well as seismic engineers from Degenkolb. For four days, we examined scores of hospitals, schools, office buildings, and residences to assess damage and advise communities on the safety of their structures. What we found was alarming.

The epicenter, near Muisne, a city on the country’s northwest coast, was all but inaccessible, the roads and highways virtually unusable. We chartered a small plane for three from our party (Stephen Forneris, AIA, who manages Perkins Eastman’s Ecuador operations; Gordy Wray, an associate at Degenkolb; and a documentarian) to reach Portoviejo, about 100 miles from the epicenter. The city was all but flattened, and dozens of bodies were still buried in the rubble. How do you assess how buildings have behaved when all that is left is dust? The most you can do is help dig out—and mourn. We conferred with Heart 9/11, a nonprofit volunteer group of rescue workers, visiting from New York City, to understand better how disaster relief can be most effective.

We spent the rest of our time in Guayaquil, the country’s most populous city, at 2.3 million people. Approximately 170 miles from the epicenter, it lies at the outer reaches of the quake’s effect, but its density and population make it particularly vulnerable. One of our engineers, Jay Love, estimated that if the earthquake had been centered on the city, many thousands more might have died. (In 1868, as many as 70,000 people perished in Ecuador’s Ibarra earthquakes, whose magnitude was 6.7.)

Typical damage to buildings after the Ecuador earthquake in April 2016.
Gordon Wray Typical damage to buildings after the Ecuador earthquake in April 2016.

Damage was evident everywhere but far less severe than in Portoviejo. Here, many buildings were on the verge of falling apart: a hospital with floor slabs fraying at the edges, a school with crumbling walls, and a children’s theater with beams separated from columns. Despite the devastation and loss around us, we sought to find opportunity in the tragedy. “You could see the earthquake as a blessing for Guayaquil,” noted Alvaro Celestino, an associate with Degenkolb. “It gives the city a chance to figure out what's not right.”

There is plenty that isn’t right. In the 1970s, Ecuador began adopting building codes, but they are not comprehensive and are rarely followed or enforced, and construction quality remains quite poor. Design requirements are essentially non-existent for non-structural components, which can cause the most damage during an earthquake. The low standard of care can make buildings dangerous even in the best of conditions.

In the aftermath of an earthquake, many people simply don’t know whether they should go back inside their own homes. Random passersby tugged on our sleeves and pleaded, “Come to my house and tell me if it's safe.” Others tried to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. Forneris had arrived two days before the rest of our party and observed the metal ceiling panels in the airport concourse shattered on the floor; by the time he picked us up, the debris was gone, and the finishes replaced. Though the hasty clean up could make buildings look safe, many often were not.

Since 1970, the population of Guayaquil has quadrupled, and explosive growth brought overly rapid development, with more and more structures built on the area’s clay soil, where seismic damage can be worst. Sixty percent of residents fall under the poverty level, with an estimated 25 percent living in slums. Earthquake-hazard risk depends on three factors: population density, emergency preparedness, and construction standards. By these measures, Guayaquil could be a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Legend has it that the name “Guayaquil” honors the native chief Guayas and his wife, Quill, who sacrificed themselves to avoid capture by the conquistadors. Though the people of the sacrificial city are incredibly resilient, their buildings are anything but.

Among natural disasters, earthquakes are one of the leading causes of death, and the majority of those deaths are caused by the damage or collapse of buildings and other structures, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). A growing scientific theory suggests that climate change is increasing the frequency and strength of seismic events: As polar ice caps melt, the pressure on the earth’s crust is relieved, triggering plate movement. A 2013 USGS study estimated that earthquakes could kill more than 2.5 million people during this century. Ninety percent of the world’s earthquakes strike in the Circum-Pacific belt, also known as the “Ring of Fire.” Overlay this with a map of the world’s poorest communities, and the west coast of South America stands out. (On May 18, Ecuador was struck by another quake, this time a 6.7-magnitude one.)

The Circum-Pacific belt, or "Ring of Fire," overlaid with the national poverty percentages.
Lance Hosey The Circum-Pacific belt, or "Ring of Fire," overlaid with the national poverty percentages.

A decade ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a consortium of New Orleans architects, planners, engineers, and policy makers met with counterparts from the Netherlands to share knowledge between the two delta communities that, despite being 5,000 miles apart, face very similar challenges. The “Dutch Dialogues” proposed a series of long-range plans for New Orleans to adapt to rising seas.

Inspired by this effort, Perkins Eastman and Degenkolb are collaborating with local policymakers, architects, engineers, and others to study how Ecuador and other quake-prone regions can become more resilient. The “Ecuador Exchange” will be a global conversation to solve critical infrastructure issues in developing regions, but it can benefit the United States as well.

In California, only essential facilities such as hospitals and police stations are currently designed to ensure continued operation after an earthquake. In the 2012 report Safe Enough to Stay, sponsored by the USGS and Degenkolb, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association outlines recommendations for achieving a post-disaster occupancy rate of 95 percent in San Francisco. Using this research as a starting point, we hope to create a new model of development, through both renovation and new construction, that can save lives but also preserve homes, services, property, as well as the architectural and cultural heritage of regions at risk. Using resources currently available in the developing world, how quickly can these communities move toward a safer built environment?

We are currently seeking partners and funding, and urge other architects and engineers to get involved in planning more quake-resistant cities.