In her research on the structural damage wrought by earthquakes and hurricanes, assistant professor Judith Mitrani-Reiser thinks broadly. By Maria Blackburn
Judith Mitrani-Reiser doesn’t know why she awoke before dawn on a Saturday morning late last February. But once she learned of the 8.8 earthquake that struck the central south region of Chile a few hours earlier, returning to sleep was out of the question.
The earthquake killed hundreds, toppled buildings, buckled roads, and sent much of the country into chaos. Amid the turmoil was the research opportunity Mitrani-Reiser was waiting for. She had spent much of the last 11 years creating computer models that show how buildings perform under ground shaking. Now she wanted to go to Chile with a team—including public health and emergency management experts—to see how structural engineers could help hospitals continue to care for patients during and after earthquakes. This was her chance.
“This can’t wait until Monday,” she thought. And as her husband and 6-month-old daughter slept in their tiny Washington, D.C. , apartment, the pajama-clad civil engineer got to work. That day and the days that followed were an endless flurry of phone calls and emails with collaborators, former classmates, colleagues, friends of friends—anyone who might have a contact in a Chilean university or in the country’s Ministry of Health. Within a week, Mitrani-Reiser was named to a reconnaissance team sponsored by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute. She would be co-leading a team that reviewed damage to Chile’s hospitals. On the morning of March 15, just two weeks after the earthquake, her plane landed in Santiago.
Mitrani-Reiser, 32, then a postdoctoral fellow at the Whiting School, had never been in the field before. She wanted to make the most of her seven-member team’s week in Chile. That first day she juggled half a dozen meetings while continuing to work the phones to get permission from the government to gain access to Chile’s public hospitals for the study. She was walking back to the hotel after dinner that evening when her cell phone rang.
It was Chile’s brand new minister of health calling. He wanted to know how he could help.
Earthquakes, unlike hurricanes or tsunamis, arrive without warning, shifting the earth, shaking buildings, bridges, and other structures to their core, exposing structural weaknesses in mere seconds. Once the dust clears, engineers survey affected structures to assess damages and then use this data to mitigate risks and improve future building codes and designs.
In Chile, Mitrani-Reiser went beyond the traditional structural engineer’s role of surveying buildings and focused on the functional impact the earthquake had on the hospitals themselves. In addition to damaging the beams and columns of many of the country’s 130 public hospitals, the disaster caused widespread nonstructural damage that affected entire systems. Her team visited 14 hospitals during the trip. She heard accounts from medical staff about how the disaster knocked out power and telephone service and caused elevators to fail and water pipes to break. She saw the rubble-strewn stairs that patients were carried down during evacuations and toured operating rooms closed because of water damage.
The researcher, who has studied the economic impact of disasters since she was in graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, knew from her prior work that this kind of data wasn’t usually collected by engineers because it wasn’t considered structural damage. However, she knew it was important because it affected financial factors, such as operability and downtime. It also affected people.
“As an engineer I think you have a responsibility,” says Mitrani-Reiser, who began her teaching career at Johns Hopkins on July 1, 2010, when she was appointed an assistant professor of civil engineering at the Whiting School. “We have to not just care about erecting a structure. We have to think about its lifetime and what kind of impact it’s going to have on society. We have to look at the whole structure as a system of what works together and we have to design for all of it.”
It’s a task that is too large for a single discipline, which is why she regularly collaborates with people outside of her field. The Chile team included not just engineers and architects but Thomas Kirsch, an epidemiologist and world-renowned disaster management expert from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Richard Bissell, director of the Emergency Center for Emergency Education and Disaster Research at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “The beauty of our team was that there was this constant cross-pollination of ideas,” Mitrani-Reiser says. “This was the right event, and the right group of people to study it. It was, in a way, the perfect storm.”
And she was the ideal person to lead the charge. “In a situation like this, an inexperienced person might be reticent or afraid to act because they are afraid of making mistakes,” says William Holmes, an internationally recognized expert in the field of seismic design who was her co-leader on the team. “Judy had no hesitation. She was resourceful and not at all shy about getting things done.” More than once during the Chile trip the experienced structural engineer found himself marveling at the seemingly endless energy of the petite woman in the sky blue Hopkins hard hat. “Wow,” he thought. “What a dynamo.”
Mitrani-Reiser and her colleagues found that even though the hospitals they visited suffered limited structural damage, the non-structural damage they experienced was significant. Hospitals lost electricity, telephone service, and access to water. Despite the fact that the facilities had generators and emergency water supplies on hand, medical staff members at some hospitals were unable to provide full services to patients for days after the earthquake.
This type of damage wasn’t what her team set out to study, but their findings were still valuable. “Nonstructural damage causes lifeline outage, economic losses, loss of functionality, and building downtime,” Mitrani-Resier explains. “Hospitals are critical structures that need to operate continuously after a disaster. They not only need to take care of their existing patients, but meet the needs of the patients who have been hurt by the event.”
Ask Mitrani-Reiser where her interest in engineering problems and their impact on people originates from and she immediately cites a source close to her heart: “I’m a product of my parents,” she says proudly.
In Cuba, her mother, Elisa, was a social worker and English teacher; Julio, her father, was a university math lecturer and engineering student. In 1980, when Judy was 2 and her sister Susana was 6, their parents left their jobs, their families and friends, and their homeland, and immigrated to the United States, settling in Miami. They brought with them a few articles of clothing and a handful of photographs. “My parents were humbled by the experience of leaving everything behind and moving to this country,” says Mitrani-Reiser. “They helped us understand that they sacrificed everything for us to have a better life and we had to make the best of it.”
She majored in civil and coastal engineering at the University of Florida and earned her master’s in civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley in 2001. At the California Institute of Technology, where Mitrani-Reiser earned her PhD in 2007, her dissertation focused on probabilistic loss estimation for performance-based earthquake engineering.
Even in graduate school the young engineer’s ability to collaborate with people in a variety of fields distinguished her from her peers, says Mary Comerio, an architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who worked with her through the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center. “She asks the right questions to understand that some of these issues aren’t engineering problems, but she needs to understand them so that she can incorporate them into what she’s doing,” says Comerio. “She has a real willingness to see outside of her world.”
Mitrani-Reiser arrived at Hopkins as a postdoctoral fellow in February 2007 to continue her research on using probabilistic methods to estimate damage and loss in buildings affected by earthquakes and to extend that work to wind damage. Her research builds on a rich tradition of risk assessment research at Hopkins, but it goes beyond the typical structural engineering question of whether a building is safe or not, says Benjamin Schafer, chair of Civil Engineering at the Whiting School. “Judy has the best in what we would consider hard-core structural engineering training, but her research is more broad than that of a traditional structural engineer,” Schafer says. “There are broader disaster relief questions that engineers can have input on if they are willing to delve a little further, and that’s really what she has been able to do.”
Five months and 5,000 miles removed from her trip to Chile, Mitrani-Reiser sits in her tidy, first floor office in Latrobe Hall, contemplating the future. A giant whiteboard on one wall tracks the projects she’s working on, all color coded to indicate their progress. The projects she wants to finish now are in blue, current projects with a more flexible deadline are in green, and items that will soon require her attention are in red.
The board is a sea of blue and green. Among the projects is a National Science Foundation hurricane study, which builds on her prior earthquake work and looks at the vulnerability of residential buildings and the utility networks they depend on. There’s also an earthquake project where she plans to assess the performance of base-isolated structures in earthquake-prone regions.
She’d like to return to Chile to follow up with the hospitals that she and her team visited in March. She hopes the data they gathered there will help inform policymakers and engineers on how to better design hospitals to minimize the impact of ground shaking on hospital operations.
“If we as engineers can use our tools to assess the vulnerabilities of a structure, of an area, in a fairly accurate way, then we can do a lot ahead of time so that we aren’t taken by surprise by the impact of an event,” she says. “For earthquakes I think what’s really important is if we can accurately predict what we see happening in a structure, then we can help decision makers like building owners and local authorities pass mandates that reinforce mitigation efforts for certain types of construction.”
There’s also the issue of functionality. Other reconnaissance efforts after seismic events have examined hospital damage, but few have looked at the damage and functional loss of a structure in this type of systematic way and with an interdisciplinary approach. It’s an approach that Mitrani-Reiser would like to continue to use in her future investigations of hospitals and other structures impacted by earthquakes. She wants to identify the exact mechanisms that disrupt hospitals from providing regular services after a disaster, but her goal as a structural engineer is even broader. “The approach and mentality we used can apply to any kind of structure,” she says. “I looked at hospitals in this trip, but in general, I care about the continuity of operations of the built environment. We need to understand what we can do better that specifically minimizes loss of function. If we want to make better designs, we have to first understand what it is we are doing wrong.”
It’s a huge task. But Mitrani-Reiser is up to the challenge. In fact, she can hardly wait.
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