Engineering professor traveling to Nepal to help earthquake recovery

Civil engineering professor Marc Veletzos  is being called to help earthquake victims rebuild Nepal.

He is traveling to the Thame Valley in the Everest region as a member of a team helping residents rebuild safer after the devastating April and May earthquakes.  The trip is part of a partnership between the Thame Sherpa Heritage Fund, a nonprofit led by members of the Thame area community, and renowned Swiss technical university ETH Zurich.

“I think I can help, and they needed someone with my expertise. I was able to find people at the college to do things I normally need to do,” Veletzos says. “…it’s an opportunity to help.”

When the original trip engineer had to change plans just a week before the visit, members of the Thame Sherpa Heritage Fund sent out an appeal to the earthquake engineering community for assistance; Veletzos volunteered. The small community he’ll be working with is now rebuilding from the earthquakes on April 25 and May 12 with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.3, respectively.

He will be aiming to observe and advise on earthquake-resistant reconstruction methods using available local materials. Concrete and other building supplies are difficult to transport to the remote region, so residents rely mostly on stone and timber. Even though there are experienced local builders, he’ll offer advice on making the buildings stronger. “It’s the little details that could be the difference between whether it completely collapses or maybe stays up,” he says. “How do they optimize the limited resources they have? 

Lessons learned during the trip will contribute to a larger project between the Swiss university ETH Zurich and the local community to develop better construction methods and also rebuild several structures in the community using techniques that improve structural safety while also maintaining features of indigenous Sherpa architecture and local material use.

Veletzos will fly from Boston to New York, Abu Dhabi, then Kathmandu. From Katmandu he’ll take a 40-minute flight and then hike two days to reach the community in the Thame Valley. The villages he will be working in are at altitudes ranging from 3,500 to 4,000 meters. “It’s not the top of Everest, but it’s pretty far up there,” Veletzos says. It helps that he has already backpacked through Nepal before he joined the faculty at Merrimack six years ago. He left for his first visit to the South Asia country just four days before 9/11.

One of the challenges facing Veletzos is fitting in with a team that started preparing for the trip long before he jumped in. Since volunteering, Veletzos has had telephone conversations and email communication with the other trip members to make sure he’ll be a good fit for the team and to learn as much as possible about the area and the earthquake damage it suffered before he departs on 11 August.

Volunteering on such short notice has also meant having to adjust personal and professional plans. Veletzos was scheduled to teach in the Summer Bridge program, which starts August 16 so professors John Gallagher and David Westerling will now be covering the course.

Veletzos has Merrimack’s support for the two-week humanitarian effort. “He came to me and I said whatever you need, we’ll do,” says Dean Allan Weatherwax of the School of Science and Engineering.

Veletzos is flying out the day his twin daughters turn 4 years old, and he’s canceling a family camping trip to which all four of his daughters and wife Maria have been looking forward to. “I’ll be preparing this weekend, and the plan is, we’re pitching a tent in the back yard,” he says. 

In Nepal, the local Thame Valley community will have places for Veletzos to stay, so he doesn’t have to worry about carrying a sleeping bag or tent, but his experience from his 2001 trip will still help. He knows to wear layers of clothing because daytime hiking will be warm and the nights will be cold.

Even with an outstanding professional resume and experience working in Haiti, Veletzos admits there is some fear and excitement in going to Nepal, wondering whether he can help.

But when he sits back he knows the answer.

“Yes, I think I can.” 


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