COOPERMADE: Seismic Research in Action

COOPERMADE: Earthquake Research

FEMA 154, FEMA 224: to most people, the names of these procedural standards of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sound like a bureaucratic alphabet soup with little relevance to those outside the agency. But in fact these procedures, developed by Cooper alumnus Charles Scawthorn CE'66, are widely recognized in the field as critical documents for preventing and assessing damage from earthquakes and fires resulting from these natural disasters. Scawthorn, who graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1966, earned his doctorate at Kyoto University, a logical choice for someone studying the causes and impact of earthquakes since Japan has the highest percentage of earthquakes on the planet for its size, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). FEMA 154 sets out procedures for rapid risk analysis of buildings, while FEMA 224 details how agents can assess how vulnerable United States national infrastructure is to seismic damage. Scawthorn’s work has included developing models of fires following earthquakes, optimizing urban land use in terms of hazard risks, loss estimation after earthquakes, wind, and floods, and the development of reinforcement of low-strength masonry buildings in the case of earthquakes. Since 2011, he’s brought his expertise to the University of California, Berkeley as an adjunct professor and, in 2003, founded his own company, SPA Risk LLC, which consults for the insurance industry, FEMA, the World Bank, and many corporations.

Like Scawthorn, N. Simon Kwong CE'09 is also intent on protecting the public from the severe consequences of earthquakes and resulting fires and floods. Kwong, who graduated from The Cooper Union in 2009 with a bachelor’s in civil engineering and his Master’s and Ph.D from Berkeley, now conducts research as a Mendenhall Research Fellow in the Earthquake Hazards Program at the Geologic Hazards Science Center in Golden, Colorado. He currently works on multiple projects related to seismic risk to critical infrastructure systems in the United States. Kwong, who formerly was an assistant professor in structural engineering at Cooper, develops ways to extend the earthquake data of the United States Geological Survey “for assessing and mitigating seismic risks to critical infrastructure systems (e.g., gas transmission pipelines, highway bridges, concrete dams), beyond the more traditional building code applications,” he says. For instance, he has researched the earthquake risk to national gas pipelines, an area of study that’s been the focus of surprisingly little research. In a paper he and a group of colleagues published in 2021, the authors noted that the dearth of research has given pipeline operators a scant amount of direction for preventing disaster, while also acknowledging the many obstacles to comprehensively assessing earthquake risk. To improve the situation, the researchers proposed quantifying the risk earthquakes pose to pipelines in the contiguous United States by integrating data from the USGS 2018 National Seismic Hazard Model. According to Kwong and his co-authors, “The results enable comparison against other risk assessment efforts, encourage more transparent deliberation regarding alternative approaches, and facilitate decisions on potentially assessing localized risks due to ground failures that require site-specific data.” To aid pipeline operators and inspectors, Kwong and his colleagues gathered open-source data and tools for earthquake risk-assessment and published them in a 2022 paper, an aspect of Kwong’s work that brings research data directly to the public and can have an impact on the safety of gas transmission. Although he’s never worked with fellow alumnus Charles Scawthorn, he notes that “Charles' work plays an important role for everyone (e.g., operators, consultants, researchers) to understand the consequences from fires following earthquakes.”

Much of John Frezza CE'76’s career has also had a direct impact on the public, in his case as a contractor and developer who has built low- and middle-income housing in the New York area. While New York may not have the earthquake risks of Tokyo or San Francisco, it does have its own form of ground disturbance in the form of the subway system. In 2006, he was tasked with building the State Renaissance Court, a combination market- and affordable-rate, 8-story apartment building in Downtown Brooklyn, directly over a subway station. Though many buildings have been constructed over the subway by anchoring the structure to the surrounding ground, Frezza, CEO and director of Strategic Development & Construction Group, which acted as the developer and contractor of the project, deployed a bit of seismic judo, by installing 270 steel spring isolators between the building and the subway. According to Frezza, a 1976 civil engineering graduate, that strategy gave State Renaissance Court “a soft connection with the subway structure, keeping the building from making a fixed contact.” Frezza was thrilled to be part of this complex engineering problem and the innovative problem-solving involved in its execution. During the planning process, he said, “constructing a residential building whose vertical support will be provided by the existing subway structure - without the building’s first floor actually being rigidly affixed to the subway structure itself - is exciting and unprecedented engineering in New York.” While there are at least 90 such structures around the world - primarily in California and Japan - State Renaissance Court was the first residential building in New York City to have this kind of seismic engineering, which not so incidentally, also protects from subway vibrations.


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