Earthquake engineer Kit Miyamoto travels the world to dispense knowledge and training to those who need it most – those who have lost it all.
By Richard Massey
Globetrotting structural engineer Kit Miyamoto, one of the world’s preeminent consultants in seismic risk mitigation, and his firm recently received a Presidential “E” Award for Exports from the United States Department of Commerce.
Miyamoto International, one of 73 companies to receive the honor, was recognized for its global approach to life-saving technical knowledge and training in construction practices. The
Miyamoto firm, based in California, specializes in disaster mitigation, response, and reconstruction, as it applies to earthquakes. In addition to its U.S. offices, Miyamoto has locations in Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania.
“I was surprised,” Miyamoto says. “I know it’s rare for the industry [structural engineering] to be
recognized for this kind of thing.”
Miyamoto is an intrepid engineer who routinely risks his health, and even his life, to bring invaluable experience and insights to communities – many of them in remote areas of developing countries – reeling from devastation.
“They usually need direction and the confidence to recover and rebuild,” Mimayato says. “After an earthquake, you lose everything. We know what works and what doesn’t, and how the public sector should coordinate with the commercial sector.”
For instance, in the aftermath of this year’s earthquake in Ecuador, a resident thought his house was ruined, but upon inspection, it was deemed salvageable.
“One little crack does not mean you have to tear the building down,” Miyamoto says.
Through the course of his travels – Miyamoto has been around the world – he has discovered a pattern. Particularly in the developing world, it’s not necessarily the building codes that are to blame. Rather, it’s the lack of access to quality engineering and quality materials that cause most of the problems. Structures were never built to withstand an earthquake, so when an earthquake strikes, those buildings don’t survive.
That was the case in China, where buildings made of cast-in-place concrete with unreinforced masonry walls collapsed. The Sichuan Earthquake of 2008, as it is known, at a magnitude of 7.9, killed more than 69,000 people.
“That was really bad,” Miyamoto says of the China quake.
Miyamoto’s work centers on new construction in addition to repair and retrofit solutions. Mindful of the surroundings, Miyamoto uses available materials and labor, parsing out the strengths and weaknesses, and in the process, oftentimes develops the “repair guidelines” appropriate for the local economy.
Miyamoto has been active for years in Haiti, where a 2010 quake destroyed as much as 50 percent of the country’s building stock and killed around 160,000 people, or perhaps many more. His experience in Haiti, scene of one of the deadliest earthquakes in history, informs his work in other disaster zones.
The firm is helping to shape a positive outcome in Nepal, where a 2015 quake, at a magnitude of 7.8, flattened entire villages, killed around 9,000 people, and did severe damage to the capital, Kathmandu. Miyamoto has conducted more than 90 damage assessments there for private, public, and international agencies, and has many retrofit projects underway.
Though Miyamoto has a big reputation as a leading global expert in seismic risk and consulting, it is the human connection that drives him – comforting a distraught housewife, reassuring a nervous business owner, or helping kids return to a safe school.
“Little things we do have a gigantic impact,” he says. “It motivates me to be out there.”
While Miyamoto’s work abroad captures headlines, his firm deploys a great deal of resources in a place that is extremely vulnerable to a catastrophic earthquake – California.
“We’re exposed completely,” he says.
The Miyamoto firm promotes the installation of fiber reinforced polymer to strengthen columns, tuck-under parking reinforcement, shear walls, and seismic dampers – shock absorbers for a building.
Miyamoto is part of the massive engineering process of retrofitting as many as 15,000 buildings to comply with the sweeping seismic regulations approved last year by the Los Angeles City Council. In Southern California, the big worry is that the San Andreas Fault will erupt, while up north in Oregon and Washington, the Cascadia Fault is the cause of anxiety.
“People are starting to think about it, and that’s a good trend, but we have to act fast, and the private sector needs to take the lead,” Miyamoto says.
Increased awareness of seismic risk indicates that the market in domestic resiliency is on the upswing, a fact that shouldn’t escape engineering students trying to figure out what career path to take. Miyamoto also says that young engineers should consider the prospect of internationalizing their work.
“There’s a huge opportunity for young people,” Miyamoto says. “As American engineers, we need to do more [international work]. We do great engineering design here, and we should share and do it globally.”
Miyamoto is known as a great communicator, and his website, populated with blog posts, press releases, photographs, field reports, and videos, is a showcase for his love of words and images.
“Engineers need to communicate,” he says. “We have a lot to say. We need to talk about our experiences. Communication is as important as the work.”