Tech Responds to Disaster in Japan

Paper cranes symbolized prayers for the people of Japan at an April program at Tech.

The first reverberations of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan reached Georgia Tech early the morning of March 11.

Matt Nagel, a senior media relations representative at the Institute, was at home — and asleep — when his cellphone rang. It was someone from the Atlanta Fox television station wanting to schedule an interview with a Georgia Tech earthquake expert. Nagel said he’d arrange something later in the morning and tried to go back to sleep.

But when Nagel received calls from CNN and the CBS Evening News, he knew that the disaster was so bad he needed to get moving. He soon learned that the earthquake had triggered a massive tsunami that devastated Japan’s east coast.

The earthquake was so intense it moved the entire island of Japan by eight feet and slightly shifted the Earth on its axis.

Although the earthquake struck across the world, the Institute’s engineering and science experts were called into action. Tech’s earthquake and tsunami researchers were interviewed for print and digital stories that would appear locally, nationally and internationally and for television, from networks to cable, including CNN en Espanol and the Weather Channel.

Tech administrators also worked quickly to connect with one staff member and eight students who were in Japan during the earthquake and make plans for them to return to the United States. The Institute has 35 students from Japan, and each was contacted and offered counseling and support.

Andrew Newman, an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, was working on a volcano in Costa Rica when his field phone rang with news about the devastation in Japan. Newman is developing a real-time tsunami warning system, RTerg.

Newman was interviewed by several news outlets and has since begun incorporating the Japan earthquake into his academic research.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, an iPhone app created by twin brothers Chris and Ryan McGarty, both CS 04, was downloaded more than 500,000 times. Their app allows the iPhone camera flash to be used as a flashlight.

Hermann Fritz, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech’s Savannah campus, spent the summer of 2009 as a visiting faculty member at the University of Tokyo. During that time, he helped evaluate tsunami preparedness on the Sanriku coast, which was hit hardest.

“We all were under the impression that all humanly possible preparations were taken,” Fritz said.

However, those preparations were based on historical earthquakes of about 8.0 magnitude, he said.

“The magnitude of the earthquake is simply unprecedented for Japan,” Fritz said. “No one expected a magnitude 9.0.”

One location that was woefully underprepared was the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Fritz said. It had been built to withstand a 6-meter-high tsunami, but the wave that hit the plant was 8 meters high.

Glenn Sjoden, a nuclear engineering professor, detailed the failures of the Fukushima plant in the wake of the tsunami. A massive explosion triggered a near meltdown, and responders still were struggling to contain the radiation a month later.

Sjoden spoke at an event hosted by Tech’s Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy in April. The office of the consulate general of Japan in Atlanta brought its book of condolences and encouragement to the campus gathering, and attendees wrote messages to the Japanese people in its pages.

Sjoden said the Fukushima plant is one of the oldest nuclear plants in Japan, and the newer plants were better prepared for the tsunami and had no problems.

“In this case the backups and the backups of the backups failed,” he said.

Sjoden predicted the radiation leak will take 10 years to clean up. But he is still a proponent of nuclear power. He stressed that far more damage is caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“I do believe nuclear power is extremely important for our infrastructure,” he said. “Nuclear must be a component of our alternative energy future.”

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