Guardian of the quake: Kit Miyamoto’s quest for urban resilience


On August 17, 2023, a 6.1-magnitude earthquake shook the Eastern Cordillera of Colombia. Bogotá, located some 120 kilometers west of the epicenter in El Calvario, Meta, was rattled for several hours with 46 aftershocks. Even though, many of the so-called replicas were gentle enough that they could be mistaken for a passing truck’s rumble, the fact that the Colombian capital experienced a 6.1 earthquake reminded far too many of the devastating power of seismic events.

The quake in Bogotá was caused by a shift of the Orinoco plate, and while it had no relation to the seismicity of the Central Cordillera’s volcanic belt, on the night of November 13, 1985, a mudflow, triggered by the eruption of the Nevado del Ruíz volcano, engulfed the once-thriving town of Armero, claiming the lives of 22,000 of its inhabitants. The immediate aftermath of this tragedy captured global attention, particularly heart-wrenching scenes of 13-year-old Omayra Sanchéz, trapped in heavy mud up to her waist. Despite relentless efforts spanning three days to free her, the young Colombian succumbed to her injuries.

Colombia, home to several active and dormant volcanoes, remains under constant seismic surveillance. While tremors are part of daily life in specific regions, the country’s most recent major earthquake dates back to January 25, 1999, which devasted towns within the Coffee Axis, leading to the loss of over 1,000 lives, primarily in the capital of Quindío, Armenia.

In the preceding month, Bogotá hosted Kit Miyamoto, a foremost earthquake specialist and founder of Miyamoto International, a risk assessment firm based in Sacramento, California. The purpose of Kit’s visit was to inaugurate the company’s first office in Latin America.

“Bogotá, on the global earthquake scale, presents significant hazards due to its soft soil composition, amplifying the potential for destruction from seismic activity,” explained Miyamoto to The City Paper. “While the risk is substantial, we believe we make a substantial impact by enhancing structural safety for the populace,” he said.

Colombia adheres to international seismic building standards, employing a customized version of the U.S. model. Nevertheless, most builders fail to fully consider the enduring consequences of subpar designs. Drawing from his experiences assessing the aftermath of the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand on February 22, 2011, Miyamoto noted that although the loss of life was comparatively low at 200, approximately 2,000 structures necessitated demolition, transforming parts of the vibrant city “into a parking lot.”

Miyamoto cautioned against assuming that new constructions are inherently earthquake-safe, emphasizing that even modern buildings can be susceptible. He brings attention to the concept of ‘performance engineering,’ which entails investing 2% to 5% more in overall costs to ensure a building’s resilience. While Miyamoto acknowledges the skill of his Colombian counterparts, he contends that seismic strengthening is becoming increasingly imperative for concrete structures erected in the capital before 1990.

While the government shoulders the responsibility of bolstering infrastructure against earthquakes, the private sector owns roughly 95% of all buildings in Bogotá, encompassing factories, assembly plants, recreational facilities, hotels, and malls. The potential aftermath of an earthquake, even if not fatal, includes severe structural damage that could spell doom for businesses, leading to greater losses than those prevented by proactive measures. Companies capable of demonstrating their seismic safety are poised to benefit. “Since 2004, we’ve been witnessing a major earthquake near a major metropolitan area every year,” cautioned Miyamoto, underscoring the fragility of the current era.

In Italy, where substantial tourism revenue relies on preserving historical heritage, numerous heritage buildings are investing in high-performance engineering to safeguard their economic futures. Miyamoto International presently oversees reinforcement efforts for a 150-year-old UNESCO-listed palace damaged during the 2015 earthquake. As earthquakes escalate globally, foresight is more crucial than ever.

Earthquakes are capricious, striking without warning. Mesa de los Santos, located in Colombia’s Santander department, rests upon a fault line that experiences daily shifts, leading to low-intensity tremors. Conversely, seismic activity is infrequent in Bogotá.

In Miyamoto’s assessment, many of the world’s major cities are overdue – often by a century – for their next significant earthquake, a category that includes the Colombian capital.

Having grown up in quake-prone Japan, Kit Miyamoto earned his degrees from California State University and Tokyo Institute of Technology. His initiation into major earthquakes occurred in 2008 when the Chinese government enlisted him to assess damage from a 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Sichuan province, killing 70,000 and leaving over 18,000 missing.

As a lone foreign engineer amid devastation, Miyamoto witnessed schools housing up to 5,000 students each crumble, as the quake struck during a bustling Monday afternoon of classes. His California engineering career no longer seemed sufficient in the face of such tragedy. “Witnessing so much death and loss, it wasn’t enough for me to be an engineer in California. I felt compelled to get involved and minimize fatalities as much as possible. I couldn’t bear to witness more children perishing.”

When disaster strikes, Miyamoto International’s team of engineers promptly arrives on-site, called upon by governments to assess structural damage and consult on seismic risk mitigation projects. The company presently collaborates with 2,000 schools in Istanbul and aids the Haitian government through USAID initiatives. Following their involvement in the earthquake assessment near Ecuador’s “ground zero” in Portoviejo, the company established a field office in Pasto, Nariño, extending their efforts to Bogotá.

Unlike numerous organizations that depart disaster zones swiftly, Miyamoto maintains a steadfast commitment. He resided in Kathmandu for a year following the Nepal earthquake and spent up to three years in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a city still in the process of rebuilding, seven years post-quake.

During a ceremony commemorating the 200,000 victims of the 2010 catastrophe, Haitian President Michel Martelly acknowledged the collective responsibility for the extensive fatalities, noting, “We did not build well, we were not well-prepared, and people were not secure.”

The sentiment “earthquakes don’t kill, buildings do” reverberates powerfully. Miyamoto laments that individuals often fail to grasp the magnitude of an earthquake until they experience one. As an unwavering advocate for resilience in the face of nature’s unpredictability, this engineer remains at the forefront of confronting these geological upheavals.


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