Stanford earthquake hazards researcher at center of Nepal quake

After 30 years in high-tech marketing and general management, Anne Sanquini began a second career as a PhD student at Stanford studying how to motivate people to take precautionary action to protect their homes and schools against earthquakes. Her work over the past four years led her to Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. She was there during the April 25 earthquake, the very quake she had been preparing for.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

Anne Sanquini, a PhD student at Stanford, is studying how to motivate people to take action to protect their homes and schools against earthquakes. She was in Nepal presenting her work when the April 25 quake hit.

Anne Sanquini stood in the conference room on the fourth floor of a Kathmandu Valley hotel and thanked her team of Nepalese researchers for helping produce and test a video about earthquake preparedness. It was just before noon when she hit the play button on the video she and her team had spent months creating. Music played over images of Nepalese men and women proudly relating stories about how they had successfully retrofitted their homes and schools to be more earthquake resistant. Just moments after the video started, the world began to shake.

“It was this deep rolling, the floor lifting and falling and you could feel the direction change – it kept shifting,” Sanquini said of the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck central Nepal on April 25. “I could hear glass crashing and a horrible groaning. I really thought that we would go into free fall at any moment, that the floor would just give way below us.” Sanquini and her team found safety beneath the heavy wooden conference table and waited for the quake to stop.

Sanquini is an earthquake hazards researcher and Stanford PhD candidate who found herself present at the earthquake moment she had spent years preparing for. “It was after only a few seconds that I realized that this was the earthquake that I had feared since starting to work on this research three years ago.”

An interdisciplinary approach to seismic hazards

Sanquini is a PhD candidate in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, working with Associate Professor George Hilley, an expert on Earth surface processes. The geosciences are a second career for Sanquini, who spent 30 years in high-tech marketing and general management. Her work at Stanford addresses a critical question at the intersection of seismology and sociology: How can scientists motivate people to prepare for earthquakes?

“Earthquakes themselves don’t kill people. In addition to major hazards like landslides, it is the collapse of buildings that is the most significant threat,” said Simon Klemperer, a Stanford professor of geophysics and one of the world’s leading researchers on the Main Himalayan Thrust, the fault responsible for the quake.

“Even though the earthquake initiated 70 miles away, the Main Himalayan Thrust moved, or ruptured, all the way beneath Kathmandu and beyond, releasing energy directly beneath the city. The tectonic setting of Kathmandu and the fact that the city is built on a large sedimentary basin amplifies the seismic waves,” Klemperer explained. “It’s one of the reasons that buildings are so vulnerable there.”

Sanquini began her research three years ago by studying the well-documented earthquake hazards in Kathmandu and identifying a number of regions prone to strong shaking. She partnered with researchers in Stanford’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to understand how different building materials and construction methods would respond to the shaking. She concluded that schoolhouses, particularly the many made of bricks or stone with mud mortar, were particularly at risk.

But Sanquini’s research didn’t stop at understanding the hazards themselves. “Her research uses this fundamental understanding as a base and extends it to understand how we might motivate people to lessen the impact of these hazards,” said Hilley. “This approach is especially novel because it spans not only Earth and engineering sciences, but social sciences as well.”

Sanquini decided to develop an intervention aimed at motivating people to retrofit schoolhouses.

Motivating change

While making buildings more earthquake resistant might sound like an easy sell, Sanquini found that the social psychology was far more complicated. “Nearly 30 percent of the schools initially refused to pursue retrofits, and it wasn’t for financial reasons. Some thought it either wasn’t required or wouldn’t work, others preferred a new building, and some simply didn’t feel capable to hire and manage trained masons to properly complete the work,” she said.

Nepali school with one of the floors visibly pancaked, other floors missing wall following April 25, 2015, earthquake

Desks are visible on what appears to be the second floor of a school building; a closer look reveals that it is actually the third floor collapsed onto the second. In her work, Stanford PhD student Anne Sanquini is developing an intervention aimed at motivating people to retrofit schoolhouses. (Image credit: Anne Sanquini)

So Sanquini dove into social cognitive theory, working closely with social scientists and public health researchers. “The theory states that we learn by observing the actions of others. I also used another theory developed by Stanford visiting professor Michele Wood called ‘communicating actionable risk.’ It states that people will take action against hazards when they know what to do, think it will work and know someone who did it,” she said. “Knowing someone who had already taken the risk reduction action proved to be the most important element.”

Drawing from her corporate marketing experience, Sanquini constructed a mass media campaign targeting as many people in Kathmandu Valley as possible, to motivate them to retrofit their local schools. Not only did she have to understand the complex tectonics, geology and seismic wave propagation to assess the hazards, she also needed to find a way to translate that knowledge in a simple manner and use social cognitive theory to motivate risk reduction action.

Over the next two years, Sanquini partnered with the Nepal Department of Education and with a local nongovernmental organization, the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal, to research and test potential methods. They settled on a surprisingly simple-looking solution: a video featuring local Nepalese men and women who had retrofitted or rebuilt their homes and schools to make them earthquake-resistant.

But hidden within the seeming simplicity lay a tremendously powerful tool to scale risk reduction. It would be nearly impossible to go door to door and connect every person with someone who had successfully retrofitted their building. But a film could reach a much larger audience. Sanquini and her local team tested the film’s effectiveness with over 750 community members associated with 16 public schools serving almost 10,000 students.

“Our research showed that this new approach to motivate action against hazards worked,” said Sanquini. “The school communities that watched the film increased their knowledge of earthquake-resistant design, materials and methods; increased their intent to support a school retrofit; and were more likely to suggest that their friends build earthquake-resistant homes.”

In April, one month after the program finished, Sanquini returned to Kathmandu to share her scientific results with her colleagues and to work on further deployment of the now-tested film to Nepalese communities beyond Kathmandu Valley.

The earthquake and the schoolhouse

The earthquake hit on April 25, an otherwise beautiful Saturday in Kathmandu. Schools were fortunately empty of students, though collapsing buildings across the region still caused thousands of fatalities and injuries. After the intense shaking subsided, Sanquini and her colleagues quickly fled the hotel and hurried to an open area to avoid fallen power lines and unstable buildings. The people who lived nearby walked home; the rest worked together to clear rubble.

“We frequently saw older mud-mortared houses that had huge cracks while the reinforced concrete structures right next to them were often totally fine,” Sanquini said.

Sundar Thapaliya, a research assistant on Sanquini’s team, and his family insisted that she stay with them for the night instead of being alone at the damaged hotel. As they approached the home, Sanquini noted a construction site nearby. The structure was stable and looked safe. It was a schoolhouse.

“It was designed to be 10 stories tall, but they had only completed the first,” Sanquini recalled. “It was the most beautiful construction, with nice thick pillars and lots of rebar. Sundar’s extended family and neighbors brought their rugs out of their houses and temporarily moved into one of the new classrooms.”

For that night, with a single candle placed in the center of the bare concrete floor, the solidly constructed schoolhouse provided security for 20 to 30 people.

Rebuilding efforts

Sanquini flew home from Nepal just three days later, but she hasn’t left the country behind. Tragically, the earthquake may have provided the impetus needed to convince Nepalese people that safer buildings are crucial. But that doesn’t mean everything is in place to make that happen. Given a countrywide shortage of qualified engineers and masons and a lack of knowledge about earthquake-resistant construction, Sanquini says, “We have a potential issue that without continued exposure to role models who successfully created earthquake-safe buildings, they will rebuild using the same materials and construction methods as they did before the earthquake.”

After spending years developing a successful program to empower people to prepare for earthquakes, Sanquini has quickly thrown herself into the rebuilding effort. From her work on pre-disaster risk reduction, Sanquini says that documenting people taking action to rebuild better structures will help tremendously in post-disaster recovery. “The same social cognitive theory applies in both situations. We learn by observing the action of others,” she said.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Sanquini is moving to create a nonprofit organization to translate her work from earthquake preparedness to recovery. She plans to continue her collaboration with her team of researchers in Nepal to expand her mass media communications strategy.

Media Contacts

Anne Sanquini, Geological Sciences: sanquini@stanford.edu
Simon Klemperer, Geophysics: (650) 723-8214, sklemp@stanford.edu
George Hilley, Geological Sciences: (650) 723-2782, hilley@stanford.edu
Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu