Working in the USA for 6 months as a visiting researcher

By Alexandra Tsioulou, on 24 October 2016

I am a third year PhD student in the IRDR and the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at UCL. My research focuses on the use of simulated ground motions in catastrophe risk engineering. Earlier this year, I travelled to the USA to work as a visiting PhD student for 6 months at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. I worked with Prof. Alexandros Taflanidis from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences to develop simulated ground motion models that are compatible with the expected seismic hazard, particularly in the region of the western USA.

Farewell dinner in July with my officemates. I am on the bottom left side.

Dinner with my officemates. I am on the bottom left.

I was part of the High Performance System Analysis and Design lab and was based in a well-equipped office with other PhD students. I had a big desk and two computer screens that was really convenient. The atmosphere in the room was very different to the big open plan office I sit in at UCL, it is very quiet and there is little interaction between the students. However, they take lunch breaks together and I was often invited to join them. On the weekends, we sometimes got together for dinner or drinks and they were very keen to show me what the city has to offer. They were all very friendly and made me part of their group.

The biggest challenge for me was the cold weather and snow; in the winter it can get down to -30° C, although everybody said I was really lucky last year as it only got down to around -10° C! The campus was very beautiful covered in snow but the commute in this cold weather was not very easy.

Grove of trees.

Grove of trees in South Bend.

Another challenge I faced was the poor public transportation system; there were very few buses and they didn’t go everywhere in the city, so I had to rely on a shuttle service to commute in the winter. The commute was short; in London it takes me half hour to get to UCL from home by tube, whereas there it took about 10 minutes by bus. After spring when temperature went up, I could also walk to university through wonderful scenery including a grove of tall trees and a beautiful lake, which took about 40 minutes. I felt very grateful to have those views and connect with nature every day on my way home.


St. Mary's Lake.

St. Mary’s Lake

While there, I attended the Probabilistic Mechanics Conference held in Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a three-day conference and there were a lot of interesting sessions. This conference mainly attracts researchers from US universities, but there were a few people from universities outside the US, mainly Europe and Asia. I presented a part of the work I have done at UCL and had the chance to see and catch up with some old friends.

Overall, that was a great experience and I certainly encourage other PhD students to take any opportunities to spend some time abroad as visiting researchers if they have this option. Lastly, I would like to thank IRDR for providing me financial support for this research trip.

Five members of the IRDR visit Amatrice as part of the EEFIT mission

By Zoe Mildon, on 21 October 2016

View along the main street of Amatrice

View along the main street of Amatrice

Six weeks after the earthquake that struck Amatrice, central Italy, EEFIT (Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team) deployed a team to the region to investigate the damages. The team involved five members of the IRDR; Prof. David Alexander, Dr Joanna Faure Walker, Dr Carmine Galasso and PhD students Zoe Mildon and Serena Tagliacozzo.

Zoe taking measurements along the surface rupture, Mt Vettore

Zoe measuring the surface rupture

Joanna and Zoe’s main aim of the trip was to map the surface ruptures from the earthquake. Slip at depth along the fault plane that generated the earthquake came to the surface, and could be seen as offset soils and open cracks along the slope of Mt Vettore. By measuring the orientation and offset of the rupture, they hope to gain a better understanding of the earthquake process. In addition, they worked together with Domenico Lombardi (Uni. Manchester) to look at the environmental effects of the earthquake, such as landslides, rock falls and ground cracks. They were using the Environmental Seismic Intensity Scale (ESI 2007) which aims to provide a measure of the intensity of shaking during an earthquake, similar to the Modified Mercalli Scale, but from only considering effects to the environment.

Carmine’s primary interest was to investigate strong ground motion signals recorded at various seismic stations around the epicentral area. Areas of particular interest included the three stations closest to the earthquake that recorded the highest PGA (Peak Ground Acceleration). One of these was close to the Umbrian town of Norcia that recorded among the highest ground motion measurement, yet the town was relatively undamaged. Three stations ~50km north-west of the epicentre also recorded unusually strong ground motions and these were visited as well to determine if there were any site specific effects that may explain these high measurements. He also worked with other members of the EEFIT team to do rapid surveys of building damage.

Interview for Italian news, Carmine is front left.

Interview for Italian news, Carmine is on the left of the reporter, Serena is to the right

David and Serena were interested in investigating the social effects of the disaster and how local communities were responding to it. They started by interviewing relief workers from various agencies, including the Civil Protection and Red Cross (Croce Rossa). They also visited L’Aquila, 40km to the south-east of the Amatrice epicentral area, as the city experienced a similar magnitude earthquake in 2009 and they were interested in the progress of reconstruction and the availability of the services to displaced communities.

All members also visited the town of Amatrice and surrounding villages to observe the damage. We would like to thank the Civil Protection Authorities and Vigil del Fuoco for their help and assistance during this trip.

Further detail about other members of the EEFIT trip and activities can be found at the mission blog. An EEFIT report will be released in the near future and there will be a presentation organised for late November to present the initial findings.

Italian Earthquakes, Large and Small

By Serena Tagliacozzo, on 6 September 2016

O 1693 c’ha succirutu!

E si n’ha ghiutu lu Vallu ri NuotuUntitled

S’u u pi sorti an-Catania iti

Ciù ri milli voti lacrimati!

Catania ca era ciù perfunna

Ricca ri –ngegnu e ri storia ornata

Spincitivi l’ate a truviriti

L’afflitta virgine a batiuoti.*

(Burderi 2014)

Traditional poem on the M 7.4 earthquake that struck Sicily in 1693, killing about 60,000 people and totally destroying towns such as Noto and Grammichele


In Italy damaging earthquakes occur on average once every 19 months, and seismic disasters happen about once every four years

The M6.2 earthquake of 24th August 2016 in central Italy occurred at 03:36 hrs local time and had a hypocentral depth of about 4 km. At least 281 people were killed, with the highest total at Amatrice (pop. 2,646) in the Province of Rieti (Region of Lazio). This event occurred in a predominantly rural area of the Apennines, and the population of the area of major damage was a mere 4,500 people. As a whole, the event recalls the M5.2 seismic disaster of May 1984 in the Abruzzi National Park (140 km south of Amatrice), in which three people died and 11,000 were left homeless (Alexander 1986). In terms of damage to schools, it recalls the M6.0 earthquake of October 2002 at San Giuliano di Puglia, 182 km from Amatrice, in which 27 children and three teachers were crushed to death when a school collapsed (Langenbach and Dusi 2004). In Amatrice the collapse of a school prompted the same questions about the seismic resistance of educational facilities, and the quality of seismic upgrading as had been raised at San Giuliano (Grant et al. 2007). There are possible indications of corruption and that, according to correlation studies, is the principal cause of seismic disasters, world-wide (Escaleras et al. 2007, Ambraseys and Bilham 2011).

In Italy, the immediate political response to the 2016 Amatrice disaster involved a great many fine words and pious hopes about prevention, reconstruction and the preservation of culture. With respect to previous earthquakes, there were some improvements in the organisation and planning of post-event recovery, notably in cultural heritage protection. However, the sums of money offered to the affected area were by no means large enough to accomplish what the politicians said should happen. Italy is the largest beneficiary of the European Union solidarity fund, and in times of seismic disaster it has also drawn heavily on regional support grants. This has not always meant that the use of the funds has met with EU approval—see the conclusions of the European Court of Auditors’ report on the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake (ECA 2012).

Typically in Italy, events such as the 2016 Amatrice earthquake do not lead to a sustained government response, for there are too many other demands upon the public purse. Commonly, the public part of reconstruction funding is largely gleaned from European funds or else is tacked onto parliamentary bills designed to fund other things, in what Americans call ‘pork-barrel legislation’. At best, a government may wait until the financial climate is more favourable before it allocates significant funding to recovery. Thus it was three years before the first stirring of reconstruction occurred in L’Aquila after the M6.3 earthquake of 2009. Public debt incurred in reconstruction after the 1968 Belice Valley, western Sicily, earthquakes, will not be paid off until 2038, 70 years after the disaster. Belice, moreover, had to wait 15 years before reconstruction even started (Parrinello 2013).

These are the minor events. People suffer no less in them than they do in the major ones, but the overall picture is quite different.

Alexander, D.E. 1986. Disaster Preparedness and the 1984 Earthquakes in Central Italy. Natural Hazards Working Paper no. 57, NHRAIC, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, 90 pp.

Ambraseys, N. and R. Bilham 2011. Corruption kills. Nature 469: 153-155.

Burderi, M. 2014. Il terremoto del 1693 nella pietà popolare. Archivio degli Iblei, July 2014: 1-13. (

ECA 2012. The European Union Solidarity Fund’s Response to the 2009 Abruzzi Earthquake: the Relevance and Cost of Operations. Special Report no. 24, Publication Office, European Court of Auditors, Luxembourg 52 pp.

Escaleras, M., N. Anbarci and C.A. Register 2007. Public sector corruption and major earthquakes: a potentially deadly interaction. Public Choice 132: 209-230.

Grant, D.N., J.J. Bommer, R. Pinho, G.M. Calvi, A. Goretti and F. Meroni 2007. A prioritization scheme for seismic intervention in school buildings in Italy. Earthquake Spectra 23(2): 291-314.

Langenbach, R. and A. Dusi 2004. On the cross of Sant’Andrea: the response to the tragedy of San Giuliano di Puglia following the 2002 Molise, Italy, earthquake. Earthquake Spectra 20(S1): S341-S358.

Parrinello, G 2013. The city-territory: large-scale planning and development policies in the aftermath of the Belice valley earthquake (Sicily, 1968). Planning Perspectives 28(4): 571-593.

Interview with Rebekah Yore, PhD Candidate at IRDR and Research Associate at Rescue Global

By Serena Tagliacozzo, on 23 August 2016

Rebekah Yore is a second year PhD Candidate in the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. She is carrying out a PhD co-sponsored by Rescue Global, an international organisation specialised in disaster risk reduction and response. In her PhD, she explores how local and international intervention following the initiar-yorel aftermath and transitional period of disasters affects the continuing vulnerability of individuals, households and communities. 

We interviewed her to know more about the upcoming projects and fieldworks in Afghanistan and Tajikistan which she will be visiting in September along with the Rescue Global team.

-Rebekah, what does your job at Rescue Global involve?

As Rescue Global’s first co-sponsored PhD student, my broader academic work aims to contribute theoretical and practical knowledge to practitioner policy at operational, tactical and strategic levels. My focus is on the transitional phase to disaster recovery, and as Rescue Global work around the entire disaster cycle, I hope to be able to directly inform their evolving practice. On a day-to-day level, I have the chance to write online copy, critically appraise theory and practice in Disaster Risk Reduction and Response (DRR&R) trends, deliver analyses of academic and industry reports, and attend and present at national and international conferences.

  -You are going to Afghanistan and Tajikistan in September. How long will you stay there for? Which areas will you be visiting?

Yes. Rescue Global has partnered with the EU Border Management Northern Afghanistan Project (EU-BOMNAF), an EU-funded project administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), to deliver Disaster Risk Management (DRM) training to border communities and border security forces along the northern border of Afghanistan. The project, known as “Operation Resilient Borders” at Rescue Global, will last for two weeks and is one of a series of missions. There is a gender diversity emphasis this time, and Tajik and Afghan women will also be involved from the areas of Khumrogi, Eshkashem and Ishkashim. For more details of the project so far, see:

-What are the objectives that this field operation seeks to achieve?

11705260_10155821821120015_4791213970532712511_nThe border area between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is very vulnerable to both natural and manmade hazards. Weather conditions, the mountainous landscape and the proximity to a seismic fault all expose the area to regular geophysical and hydro-meteorological disasters. This mission seeks to support the continued development and delivery of the DRM training curriculum, this time including groups of local women as vital caregivers, first responders and conduits of life-saving knowledge.

– How DRR awareness is going to be developed and nurtured at long term?

The training sessions are delivered through both classroom instruction and interactive working groups so that the students then lead practical application exercises to reinforce their learning. Sessions are held in both Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and follow an ‘exchange’ method where border forces are trained together, and in their opposite colleagues’ location. By training all forces as colleagues through several sessions over a longer period of time, and by including local community leaders in the training events, reinforced DRM awareness is spread among men and women along the entire border community.

Interview with Gianluca Pescaroli, founder of the Cascading Disasters Research Group at IRDR

By Serena Tagliacozzo, on 29 July 2016

Gianluca Pescaroli is a third year PhD student in the IRDR and one of the founders of the CascGianlucaading Disasters Research Group ( The group aims to understand, assess, and mitigate the escalation of crises in the global interconnected system.

– Gianluca, how did you come up with the idea of creating a research groups on cascading disasters?

The idea was the natural consequence of a cross-disciplinary dialogue started with Dr. Robert Wicks and Prof. David Alexander (both based in the IRDR) on extreme space weather events. We recognised the potential to do something different, challenging our approaches and evolving them together into something new. This was supported by other discussions with Dr. Ilan Kelman on climate change and disaster diplomacy, as well as by the interest of engineering colleagues working on floods and earthquake early warning systems. The Knowledge Exchange Grant Award was the perfect chance to translate a vision into reality, and make it happen.

 -What is the Knowledge Exchange Grant? How did you win it?

The Knowledge Exchange Grant is a UCL-based grant to promote knowledge transfer between UCL and small and medium-sized enterprises. In other words, it helps to create a bridge between academia and the end users, and turning theoretical knowledge into practical solutions. The KE Grant is supporting us in the development of activities related to cascading disasters, including a website ( and various workshops.

– You recently organised a closed-door workshop on cascading disasters and extreme space weather. Can you tell us more about the outcomes of this workshop?

We are producing two guideline documents on cascading disasters and extreme space weather events, which we are going to release by early August. We will explain the key issues for a non-academic audience in the form of bullet points and graphics. I hope there will be the chance to disseminate them through websites such as PreventionWeb ( or with a self-standing event.

– What goals would you like to achieve in the near and far future?

In the short term, I wish to publish my work on cascading disasters, extreme space weather
20160523_104642 copyand cybersecurity that applies our general theory to scenario building. The second step would be to have a special issue on cascading disasters for a peer-reviewed journal, which will be not easy!  In the medium term, after finishing my doctorate, my goal is to have the resources for developing the idea of vulnerability paths and scaling up of emergencies, producing some practical outputs that could make the difference in crises.

– Which stakeholders do you plan to involve in the projects that will be developed by this research group?

We are already working a project with major stakeholders from the public and private sector, but this is just one of the early steps. It will be very interesting to work more on the intersection between physical and social vulnerabilities that is in the interest of governments, service providers and society. The evolution of the research group needs be driven by dialogue, and I think that many of the possible ways to cooperate haven’t been considered yet… I am sure they will become natural when it is the right moment.

– Will be room for other academic partners to join the research group?

Definitively, this will be vital for the future. The more we discuss and the more we cooperate, then the more we will be able to understand cascading events. The complexity of this world is too great to solve it on our own so we need the efforts and ideas of other practitioners. From my experience, some interesting collaborations can come from the most unexpected areas and in the most unexpected circumstances, such as a walk at the Flood Barriers or a beer after work. The important thing is keeping an open mind and following our intuition.

Resilient to Landslides: The Indigenous Tribal Communities of Bangladesh

By Bayes Ahmed, on 4 July 2016

Landslides are common socio-natural hazards in the Chittagong Hill Districts (CHD) of Bangladesh. Communities living in the hills of CHD can be categorized as urbanized and tribal, each community experiences a different level of risk to landslides. With this knowledge, I conducted fieldwork in the three tribal hill tracts districts (Bandarban, Khagrachari and Rangamati) in Bangladesh from November 2015 – January 2016. The primary objective of this fieldwork was to understand what makes the tribal communities resilient to landslides. The IRDR and Commonwealth Scholarship Commission funded the fieldwork. I conducted household level questionnaire surveying and community based focus-group discussions in four tribal communities in CHD. This blog is all about sharing my experience working with a remote tribal community named Sandak Para in Thanchi sub-district, Bandarban, Bangladesh.

Landslides causing human casualties and massive property destruction are mainly visible within the urbanized communities in Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar. Indiscriminate hill cutting and development of unplanned settlements in the hills during the monsoon mainly cause the landslides. In contrast, the tribal people living in the remote and rural hill areas experience few or no similar landslide disasters.

Thanchi_BayesSandak Para Community in Bandarban.

The typical tribal houses are made of locally available materials – bamboo, wood, mud and corrugated iron sheets. The foundation is laid on bamboo/tree trunks on a raised plinth from the ground and the roof is typically thatched.

Thanchi_Bayes_2Typical tribal housing – Sandak Para, Bandarban.

Tribal people have lived here permanently for few generations and no Bengali (people not living in the hills are called as Bengali/ settlers by the tribes) were found in the community. The traditional shifting cultivation (or slash and burn agriculture) is the primary occupation. There is no formal electricity supply, but people use solar power for household activities. There is no drainage network. Water supply is a major problem as people are mostly dependent on water from the Sangu River or from the nearby falls. The average monthly income of a household ranges from US$12-20 that is low earning in Bangladesh.

The architecture of the houses is helping to make the community physically less vulnerable to landslides. The raised plinth allows the rainwater to flow naturally and freely below the houses. The construction materials of the houses are lightweight and therefore not life threatening, even if the houses collapse in earthquakes or landslides. The tribal people do not cut the hills like in the urbanized areas, instead they try to build houses horizontally in the same line of hill-slopes using bamboo or tree trunks in layers. This is the indigenous knowledge applied by the tribal people to protect themselves from landslides or slope collapses.

Vulnerable Houses in CHDHouses built by cutting hills vertically in urbanized hill communities.

From initial observation, I found that the tribal communities are also addressing the different thematic dimensions of vulnerability in relation to landslides:

Economic dimension: alternative livelihood options, less damage to physical assets, and not using the hills for commercial activities.

Social dimension: no massive damage to social systems ranging from individual to collective, accessibility to necessary infrastructure and services, and social cohesion.

Cultural dimension: by treating the hills as sacred place and using centuries-old rich indigenous and local knowledge to deal with the hill environment.

Environmental dimension: protecting the hills by not destroying the hill-forests and cutting the hills in an unstable manner.

Institutional dimension: there are no power politics and few external influences; instead there is a strong local and regional network with autonomous administration.

From my fieldwork, it is evident that the indigenous tribal communities in CHD are more resilient to landslides than the urbanized settlers. It would be highly recommended to address community vulnerability by incorporating indigenous knowledge in local planning to reduce the risks of landslide disasters in the highly urbanized hill areas of Bangladesh.

After several days of long and tiring work in the field, I took a boat ride with my field assistants; who are from the Marma tribe, in the Sangu River towards Remakri. The mesmerizing beauty of Sangu River, the surrounding green and untouched hills, the helpful tribal people, freedom from the chaotic and polluted city life and finally clean air and fresh food, all made me feel like I was in the most beautiful place on earth. I want to go back to this place again, just to enjoy the natural beauty and share some more moments with the indigenous tribal people of Bangladesh!

Bayes_4 Bayes_5Scenic beauty of Sangu River, Bandarban.

© Bayes Ahmed


Not working in Japan, aka travelling

By Zoe Mildon, on 13 May 2016

As well as working during my fellowship in Japan (see previous blog post), I have been able to travel around much of the country and see a variety of sights.

My first travels outside Sendai were to the Fukushima prefecture to meet with a group of UCL students who were in the country for a cultural exchange to commemorate five years since the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami (see recent blog article). I joined them for a weekend, and a lot was packed into two days, including visiting Fukushima Dachii nuclear power plan, a Japanese castle, painting Japanese candles and staying in a ryokan (Japanese  style hotel) with an onsen (hot springs).

My second long weekend trip was partly geological and partly touristy. Shinji (my supervisor in Japan) took my husband Peter and I (he had come to visit me while I was in Japan) to Kobe and the area that was damaged during the 1995 Hanshin earthquake. We visited a museum on Awaji Island where the surface

Preserved surface rupture from the 1995 Kobe earthquake

Preserved fault cross-section from the 1995 Kobe earthquake


offset from the earthquake has been preserved by pumping glue and preservatives into the soil. They had also dug down to reveal a cross-section of the fault at the surface. To get to Awaji Island we crossed the Akashi Kaikyō bridge which is the longest suspension bridge in the world. The 1995 earthquake actually affected its construction. The fault, which moved with strike-slip motion, passed between two pillars that had been constructed and offset them by ~1m relative to each other, hence they had to be realigned following the earthquake. After this, Shinji took me to one of the oldest seismic observatories in Japan, near Kyoto, which has a collection of seismometers from ~1900 to the present day.

Peter and I feeding the tame deer in Nara park

Peter and I feeding the tame deer in Nara park

The earliest seismometers took up an entire room, whereas the most modern one was the size of a brick and weighed only 1.5kg. Then our trip became more touristy, Shinji took us to Nara, the first capital of a united Japan in 710 AD. The biggest tourist attraction is the largest Buddha statue in Japan, housed inside the largest wooden building the world. There are also tame deer that wander around the old part of the city and can be fed. Peter and I spent the rest of the weekend in Kyoto and Nagoya (most famous for the Toyota factory) being tourists.

After a couple of weeks of hard work, I took a week off to travel with my husband and a friend visiting from the UK. This was quite unusual for the other people in my office, I think Japanese people don’t usually take such long holidays! We went right off the tourist track, into a small town in the central Japanese Alps, in order to climb a small active-ish volcano. We were probably the only westerners in the town, and we caused a bit of a stir when we went to the local onsen, which was otherwise full of old Japanese people, who spoke no English whatsoever! Before I came to

Sakura blossoms in Kenroku-en park, Kanazawa

Sakura blossoms in Kenroku-en park, Kanazawa

Japan, many people had told me about seeing the sakura (cherry blossoms) and how special an occasion it is. We were in a city called Kanazawa on what was probably the most spectacular day for viewing the blossoms, warm, blue skies and all the blossoms were out. Sakura really is a fabulous sight, both in the cities and the countryside. Our last stop was Tokyo, where we spent three days. Tokyo is as huge and crazy as I was expecting. Travelling into Tokyo on the Shinkansen (bullet train), for about an hour before you arrive at Tokyo station there are dense buildings almost as far as the eye can see. Much of Tokyo is busy, built up and lots of neon lights, but there are pockets of quieter (and usually older) districts.

Left: The Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima, the bomb exploded about 600m above this building. Everyone inside was killed instantly. Right: Children's Peace Monument to commemorate all the children who dies as a result of the bomb.

Left: The Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima, the bomb exploded about 600m above this building. Everyone inside was killed instantly. Right: Children’s Peace Monument to commemorate all the children who dies as a result of the bomb.

Last week, four friends from university came out for Golden Week (national holidays). We mainly stayed in Kyoto and did a couple of day trips out, including to Hiroshima. The Peace Museum in Hiroshima is an incredibly informative and moving museum, documenting the physical effects of the atomic bomb, from short-term thermal radiation to long-term cancer, as well as the physics behind the bomb and why it was dropped on Hiroshima in particular. We visited a geisha show in a theatre in Kyoto, as well as numerous temples and shrines. The highlight of my week was going to the opening day of the sumo grand tournament in Tokyo. It was not at all like I expected it to be, there was a lot of ritual and ceremony involved, but the fighting only lasts 5-30 seconds!

Beginning of a sumo bout at the sumo arena, Tokyo

Beginning of a sumo bout at the Ryogoku Sumo Hall, Tokyo

Travelling around Japan by Shinkansen is incredible for so many reasons. Firstly (and probably most well known) they are incredibly fast, Sendai is about 350km from Tokyo, which is about the distance between London and Newcastle, and the Shinkansen takes only 90 minutes! The trains are also spacious and comfortable, even in standard class. Their only disadvantage is how expensive they are to buy tickets, but in my opinion the speed is worth paying for. At the other end of the spectrum, local lines out of cities are typically very cheap, for example I got a train to a place called Matsushima, just outside Sendai, a 50min train ride which cost 400yen (about £2).

My overall impression so far of Japan is that it is a culture of extremes, between the very old and the very new and technologically advanced. Wherever I have been, people are very friendly and helpful, even through the language barrier. Before I came, I have to admit I didn’t have a burning desire to visit Japan, but having been here, I would thoroughly recommend it as a country to visit.

Working and living abroad as a visiting researcher

By Zoe Mildon, on 29 April 2016

I am a third year PhD student in the IRDR, my research is focussing on the geometry of normal faults in the central Apennines and the implications for stress transfer during earthquakes. Through my PhD I have travelled many times to Italy to do fieldwork, but my travels have now taken me further afield to Sendai, northern Japan. I am in the middle of a four-month fellowship funded by the JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) working at the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS) at Tohoku University, Sendai. I am working with Prof. Shinji Toda to develop a program he wrote, called Coulomb, to model the transfer of stress following an earthquake on faults with variable geometry, specifically the Italian faults that I am studying for my PhD.

20160316_203715At the Institute, I am based in a fairly large open plan office for the Disaster Science Division, with PhD students, Associate and Assistant Professors in the same space. The photo included is of everyone in my office (and my husband) our for dinner together.The atmosphere in the office is a little different to the PhD room at the IRDR, it is very quiet most of the time. Most people in the office can speak a little English, a few speak English very well (including my professor). I can speak and understand a small amount of Japanese, but not enough to hold a decent conversation. My desk is pretty nice, actually I have two desks pushed together so I have lots of space, and I am right by a window. I am enjoying my commute to the university much more than I do in London. In London it takes me an hour to get to UCL from home, whereas here it takes less than 15 minutes by subway, or I can walk (via a Shinto shrine, see the photo with the cherry blossoms in bloom), which takes about 40 minutes.

My morning walk to the university, with the cherry blossoms in bloom.

One of the biggest changes that I have experienced is living space; in the UK I live in a house with my husband, but here in Japan I am living in a large student dormitory. I have my own room, but it is pretty small, just enough space for a single bed, desk and set of shelves. Luckily I couldn’t bring very much stuff over with me, as there isn’t space for much else. The washing and cooking facilities are shared between all the residents (around 60 people, most study at the university) and so are usually quite busy and not particularly clean. But it is all part of the experience, and I have met some lovely people in my dormitory.

Food has been less of a change than I expected. Before I came, I was warned that there wasn’t much western food available and to take some home comforts (which for me was dark chocolate and a jar of peanut butter). But I have been surprised how easy it is to buy western staples like pasta in the supermarkets. There are also two dedicated international food shops in Sendai, but they are more expensive than the normal supermarkets. But I am definitely missing cheese, I probably eat cheese almost every day in the UK. It is available here, but about twice the price for half the amount of cheese as the UK.

I am enjoying Japanese food, and I’ve been taken to some excellent restaurants in Sendai with colleagues. Until about two months before I came to Japan, I was a lifelong vegetarian, but I had made the decision to start eating meat and fish while I was in Japan so that I didn’t have to worry about whether I could a meal out or not. So far I have tried many things, including octopus tentacles (too rubbery), raw sea urchin (surprisingly tasty despite appearances), sashimi (raw fish) and Kobe-style beef. Several places I have stayed or been to, you are simply presented with an evening meal or breakfast, with no choice. So I am glad I made the switch, as otherwise there are occasions that I could have gone without much of a meal.

In my last month in Japan, I will attending the Japan Geoscience Union Annual Meeting (like AGU) in Tokyo. Most of the conference will be Japanese sessions, but there are some English sessions on each day. I will be speaking about my research I have been doing while in Japan, my talk will be in the first session on the first day of the conference. This will be my second international conference that I have presented at, and I am really looking forward it.

A group of six IRDR members visit the Fukushima Prefecture

By Serena Tagliacozzo, on 6 April 2016

From the 8th to the 15th March 2016, a group of students and researchers from UCL and the UCL Academy visited the area affected by the Fukushima- Daiichi nuclear power plant accident in the Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. The group included six members of the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction: four PhD students – Nurmala Nurdin, Omar Velazquez, Serena Tagliacozzo and Zoë Mildon – one Masters Five membersstudent – Sandra Camacho Otero – and Professor David Alexander. The visit occurred on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Great Tohoku earthquake and of the resulting tsunami and nuclear accident.

The visit was aimed at investigating the current state of rebuilding in the Fukushima Prefecture and highlighting the positive and negative aspects of the reconstruction process. During the course of the stay, we had the chance to see numerous places, being informed about strategies put in place to ensure food security and listen to how survivors coped with the disaster. On the 12th of March a group was allowed to access to the power plant itself while others visited some temporary housing sites in the prefecture.


“Visiting Fukushima was an incredible experience. I think all of us were impressed by the efforts made by the community and the government in order to recover from the disaster. Personally, I was amazed by the reconstruction works carried out in the power plant and the current situation of its facilities”, Omar Velazquez, IRDR PhD student.


Broadly speaking, the Fukushima Prefecture and Japanese Government rUntitled1esponded well to the disaster: the areas we had the chance to visit were entirely reconstructed in a culturally appropriate manner and information was released to the residents about radiation levels. As additional positive elements, temporary houses were constructed close to or within existing towns and efforts were made to ensure that residents could be both integrated into the new community and maintain relationships with the original one. Much work has been done to ensure control over the safety of the fishery and agricultural goods.


“Visiting the Fukushima Prefecture gave me the chance not only visit the nuclear plant itself and see the technical efforts to decontaminate the area, but also gave me the opportunity to talk to people and know the local effort to revitalize the place, sell their products and build resilience in situ.” Sandra Camacho Otero, IRDR Master student.


However it should be noted that little chance was given to us to explore the pitfalls of this fast-paced reconstruction. Fukushima prefecture is trying hard to rebuild its reputation as a safe place and to revitalise economic sectors like agriculture and tourism while also investing on robotics and sustainable energy sources. As disaster researchers, it’s crucial for us to highlight both best practices and areas of improvement in order to support decision makers in the hard task of rebuilding after such major disasters. Acknowledging challenges is the first step towards a recovery that attempts to reduce vulnerabilities rather than repeating the mistakes of the past.

Masters student, Sandra Camacho Otero, wrote an article (in Spanish) for The Mexican Times on the field trip in Fukushima. Read more here:

Investigating communications after the Canterbury earthquakes – fieldwork

By Serena Tagliacozzo, on 10 September 2015

Serena Tagliacozzo is a PhD student in the IRDR who is investigating the requirements for a web-based platform to allow effective communication between authorities and citizens in the disaster recovery phase. The platform would allow citizens to effectively share their knowledge and experiences with planners and developers, and for authorities to communicate plans to interested parties. Serena has recently visited Christchurch, NZ, to discuss with citizens and authorities the effects of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that destroyed parts of the city. She shares her experiences in this post.


When I arrived in Christchurch, on the evening of the 8th August, it was dark and cold. The morning after, the city welcomed me with some snow, which fortunately stopped after few hours. Walking across the city centre, my impression was of a big construction site, with repair works in progress everywhere. The red cones dispersed throughout the city remains the symbol of the Christchurch’s struggle to recover from the devastating earthquakes that hit the Canterbury region in September 2010 and February 2011.


Following these two large events, the whole area experienced moderate to severe aftershocks for almost two years, making it more difficult for the repair companies to start the demolition/rebuilding of the damaged infrastructure and dwellings and for the population to return to normality. After almost five years from the earthquake of February 2011, Christchurch has now entered into the reconstruction phase. Many aspects of this reconstruction process remain controversial. For example the future of the Christchurch Cathedral (which dates back to the 19th century) is uncertain, with some people wanting to demolish it and rebuild a brand new one while others advocate preserving the historical building.

Christchurch Cathedral

The controversies do not exist solely on the rebuilding of the physical environment. The city is split socially, between those who experienced less damage and had their houses repaired in relatively short time, and those living in the most damaged areas whose property has not yet been repaired. For these people, most of who were living in the east part of the city where the liquefaction caused a drop in the ground level (which resulted in an increase of the flood risk), the recovery is far from being complete.


The scope of my fieldwork was to gather data on the communication practices that take place between government agencies and residents during the reconstruction phase from the Canterbury earthquakes. During the course of my fieldwork, I had the chance to interview and speak with many people from community based groups and associations born in the wake of the earthquake. All of them shared with me their stories of hope and the struggle to recover and to be listened to about their concerns for the future of their city. They also voiced a general distrust toward some of the authorities in charge with the management of the recovery process and concerns about the centralisation in the decision-making.

I also had the chance to interview and meet with government officers working in the main recovery agencies, including Christchurch City Council, Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuilding Team (SCIRT), Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), Earthquake Commission (EQC), New Zealand Police, Red Cross, District Health Board. They told me about the challenges of leading a huge recovery effort and communicating effectively with increasingly frustrated residents. They also confirmed the importance of communicating timely and accurately recovery information through a multitude of channels so that to reach out to the different social groups. Within this communication landscape, social media platforms are being embraced by government agencies to reach a broader audience.

What I will take from this fieldwork is the incredible struggle of Christchurch and the Canterbury region to bounce back (or bounce forward). Whilst some choices made regarding the management of the recovery process are debatable, it should never be forgotten that recover from a disaster is a long-lasting, complex, challenging and sometimes nerve-wracking process. This is true for the residents that live through it, as well as for the government agencies that lead it. Good communication practices between recovery agencies and residents can make this process smoother and more participative.