A rapid technical response to the damaging earthquakes in Malawi produces both humanitarian and scientific benefits, and we hoped that both scientific and international assistance agencies would support our effort. Our seismic field effort serves two purposes: (1) to provide badly needed seismic equipment and technical training to the Malawi Geological Survey department (MGSD); and (2) to obtain unique data from very close to the earthquake sources to develop a better scientific understanding of faulting in the East African Rift. Funding has proven difficult, however, and our experience suggests that a technical component to earthquake response often falls through the cracks of the broader relief effort.
The Malawi earthquake sequence spawned a modest international response by several organizations with complementary and overlapping goals. The US Agency for International Development (USAID), through the Office of Foreign Disaster Relief (OFDA), and international organizations (e.g., Red Cross) provided direct humanitarian response: food, water, shelter, and other necessities for the displaced people of Karonga. Two scientists from the US Geological Survey (USGS), with support from USAID, provided a post-earthquake assessment based on field observations of damage and faulting, which constituted the official US government technical response.
Our technical response parallels those efforts, and is typical for the US academic community; individual scientists with existing contacts in and working knowledge of the effected region provide seismological field equipment, analysis, and training. Responding to the earthquakes in a timely manner required an almost instantaneous commitment on our part. Within two days after the largest event, IRIS had mobilized instruments and the funding necessary to ship them to the field. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) and the Earth Institute (EI), both at Columbia University, promised to “backstop” our effort – in other words, cover our travel and field expenses while we sought external funding for our effort. Both have strong and long-standing commitments to mitigating earthquakes, hazards, and human suffering worldwide, including in East Africa and Malawi. The project would have immediately stalled without this support.
With the LDEO and EI backstop in hand, we sought external funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and USAID, highlighting the unique scientific and outreach opportunities offered by a rapid response to these earthquakes (read our proposal here). USAID characterized the activity as too scientific to be in their purview and declined to fund us. NSF acknowledged a modest scientific benefit, but they described the effort as primarily a humanitarian and outreach response. While NSF agreed to provide some support, the amount available for such short-turnaround projects (via the RAPID program) is very small – enough only to return and recover our instruments.
Technical responses such as this one provide scientific and humanitarian benefits alike and strongly complement the larger response effort. The breadth of the impact should increase their fundability – more bang for the buck. But because of the splintered nature of the US response and funding mechanisms, this breadth can be a detriment to obtaining funding – too scientific to be humanitarian, but too humanitarian to be scientific. In our case, we overcame this quandary only with the strong financial support of our home institution. How many technical response efforts never get off the ground because of this funding uncertainty?
The ideal spot for a seismic station is dry, quiet and safe from vandals and thieves. Seismometers record slight ground motions, allowing them to hear distant (and not so distant) earthquakes. But cars or even kids playing near a seismic station can produce ground vibrations that overwhelm the subtle sounds of earthquakes. Seismic stations include plenty of expensive, high-tech instruments that are worthless to the average person. But they also contain mundane items that can be useful, such as 12-volt batteries and insulated wiring, making theft a problem. And water is the enemy.
Malawi presented novel challenges for siting our stations. Our first priority was to find dry, secure locations to prevent damage and loss. As we drove into the Karonga region for the first time, our hearts sank; the epicentral region is low-lying and wet, small villages surrounded by rice paddies. Our arrival during the rainy season did not help.
But with a little hunting, we were able to find high and dry spots for most of our stations. We bumped along narrow village tracks in our rented 4×4, occasionally getting stuck on particularly muddy sections. Most of the dirt roads did not appear on our outdated maps, so we stopped regularly to ask for directions. When our Malawi colleagues explained that we were there to learn about the chindindindis (Tumbuka for earthquakes), they were eager to help!
In many parts of the world, safety and quiet can be achieved simultaneously simply by deploying stations in the middle of nowhere. This is not an option in densely populated Malawi, where one farming village abuts another. Main thoroughfares and small dirt roads alike were crowded with kids walking to school, villagers biking to town, and farmers grazing their goats and sheep. Instead, we sought out village police, teachers, and other officials for help finding safe spots. In some cases we hired guards to look after them.
We spent hours driving, inspecting sites and waiting to meet with officials. We normally skipped lunch, fueling ourselves instead on passion fruit-flavored Fantas and “puffs” (kids junk food akin to cheese doodles). But these efforts paid off – we found good sites for our equipment and started listening.
Within two days, we located ten seismometers: eight from the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), and two from Cindy Ebinger, a seismologist at University of Rochester in upstate New York. Cindy offered to send us her instruments, which we would carry on the plane with us. IRIS planned to ship their instruments directly to Malawi. On Christmas Eve, as we headed home to our families, everything seemed to be in order. We purchased plane tickets for Dec. 30, and planned to celebrate New Year´s Eve in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, with a couple of Carlsberg Specials at the Diplomat Pub. From there, we would head north to the epicenter.
Not all of it happened as planned. Shipments were canceled. Boxes went missing. Flights were changed. Shipping the IRIS equipment directly to Malawi required two weeks in transit, minimum. We considered wild back-up plans: “Let’s truck everything from Johannesburg to Malawi!” Just as quickly we rejected them: Johannesburg is 1,000 miles away, and would have required four border crossings.
More or less everything that could go wrong, did. The delays and false-starts were particularly frustrating since the clock was ticking; the rate of aftershocks declines steadily following a major earthquake. Each day of delay meant less information about the origin of the big earthquakes.
After two days of arranging and rearranging, hair pulling and hand wringing, we departed New York on New Year’s Day with equipment for five seismic stations, all of it packed into our checked luggage. We even crammed two seismometers into our carry-on backpacks; they passed through security at JFK apparently unnoticed. Eighteen hours later our eight 50-lb bags arrived at the VIP customs lounge in Lilongwe. Leonard helped speed us and our equipment through customs. Within an hour, we were in a 4×4 speeding towards Karonga. Almost nothing went right prior to our departure from JFK; from that point forward, nothing really went wrong.