BYU Professor Sets Up Disaster Education Group

June 20, 2008

A Brigham Young University professor feels the more people know about natural disasters, the more likely they are to survive them.

Whether it’s earthquakes, hurricanes or tsunamis, professor Ron Harris says a little knowledge can help people anticipate what is coming and take precautions. Harris has set up a nonprofit organization to try to get that word from the science lab to the people who need it most.

Harris, a professor of geological sciences at BYU in Utah, said the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 showed the need for a more effective system. Harris found in the mid-1990s that the Sumatran Fault was due for a high-magnitude earthquake. When it did happen, it triggered the tsunami that killed 230,000.

“In 2004 when it happened, it was a huge wake-up call for me,” Harris said. “We didn’t know when it was going to come, just someday.”

Harris said the foundation is focusing on education all over the world, especially in Asia because of the frequency of casualties caused by natural disasters there. Just knowing the signs can help people seek shelter or higher ground at the last moment, he said.

Harris noted that during the 2004 tsunami, an English schoolgirl recognized what was happening when she saw the water draw back from the beach. He said the girl and her parents were able to warn others before the giant wave swept onto land.

“She saved over 100 lives just because she knew what was going on,” he said.

Harris wants the foundation to teach locals how to protect themselves from tsunamis by moving to higher ground and using large plants and trees along the coastline to form a barrier.

Harris said some of the In Harm’s Way funds are dedicated to sending students to college. He said educated people who live in at-risk areas can spread the word to others on how to prepare.

“The reason that’s the focus is because that’s the only way it’ll work,” he said.

Suzie Kramer, an intern for Harris, said the foundation also wants to show people how to construct buildings that are prepared to sustain damage from an earthquake or major storm.

“We’re not going in there building buildings. We’re teaching them how to build buildings,” she said.

Harris’ group is new and is working under the Mann Family Foundation, which supports smaller groups with various causes, Mann foundation president Steve Mann said.

“We’re hopeful,” Mann said. “It’s a good cause.”

In Harm’s Way isn’t only looking overseas to help people. Harris said Utah is overdue and under-prepared for a major earthquake along the Wasatch Fault. Harris said he has done 50 seminars on how to prepare, including securing gas appliances and water heaters to prevent fires.

One of Harris’ biggest concerns is Utah’s schools, most of which have not been retrofitted to withstand an earthquake, he said.

“We think it’s probably the least prepared (state) for an earthquake in the U.S.,” he said.

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