Focus Areas

Engineering Against Natural Disasters


Engineering Against Natural Disasters: Overview 

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Recent catastrophic natural events (Wenchuan, Haiti, Chile, Tohoku) have demonstrated that societies around the world still face a broad range of challenges related to the effects of these unexpected events.  Cities that developed without or before the adoption and enforcement of stringent building regulations are vulnerable to catastrophes generated mainly by collapses of buildings.  And yet, communities that have enforced conservative building standards through the years are also not completely immune to the effects of earthquakes.  Although reliance on these standards has paid off by reducing the rate of collapse to levels that are orders of magnitude smaller than those in other communities, these communities still face problems associated mainly with the disruption of use of critical facilities and unexpected effects which go far beyond ground shaking and range from tsunamis to landslides.

Materials in the building environment are usually weak, brittle and fail without warning under earthquake loads. Most natural events strike in regions where earth materials are used for construction, making them even more vulnerable compared to other construction materials due to their low strength and toughness. Aging, harsh environmental conditions and fatigue of materials makes the problem worse. While there are solutions to improve the mechanical performance of these materials, environmental and economical factors make the problem more challenging.  The problem is compounded by the complex geology of Colombia that ranges from exceptionally thick residual deposits and problem soils, to tectonically diverse rock masses. These unique characteristics pose unprecedented challenges regarding slope stability measures and early warning, ground motions and ground amplification predictions, soil-structure interaction and other ground phenomena such as liquefaction. Additionally, there is a current quest to develop the next generation of strong and multifunctional materials, monitoring systems and predictive tools that can be effectively used to either prevent or at least mitigate damage, and adapt and harness the energy from catastrophic events. In turns, new research will lead to the sustainable solutions when disasters strike large populations areas.

Colombia faces challenges in the entire range of problems described and beyond.  The building codes used since 1984 should reduce collapse rates dramatically in areas developed enforcing them.  But in areas where informal construction prevails and areas built in or before the 1970s, strong ground motion can trigger collapses at rates closer to those in Wenchuan than to those in Tohoku, Japan. 

The challenges are multi-faceted and cross-disciplinary, and to address them effectively, Colombia needs a well-educated group of professionals trained to propose pragmatic solutions that are proportional to the available resources and make use of state-of-the-art knowledge.  The objective of this program is to help Colombia develop such group. Purdue faculty with expertise in all aspects of engineering against natural hazards are interested in partnering with faculty and students in Colombian institutions to achieve this goal.