Search and rescue after the Nepal earthquake

Posted by Mr Joshua Macabuag on 25 July 2015

Chartered Structural Engineer Joshua Macabuag, is researching tsunami effects at The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) sponsored The Earthquake and People Interaction (EPI) Centre at University College London (UCL). He volunteers with the charity, Search and Rescue Assistance in Disasters (SARAID).

I was on a training exercise with three other SARAID volunteers in Cornwall when news of the earthquake came through. We were one of the earlier Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams to arrive in Kathmandu, despite the hold ups in New Delhi of finding an onward flight that could take us and our two tonnes of kit. It was frustrating, waiting in the transit lounge knowing there would be people dying in the rubble.

The news broadcasts had been sensationalist, concentrating on areas with serious damage and the chaos getting there had also built up the tension. From the air, flying in at night, we could see fires where Nepalis were cremating their loved ones. But it was unexpectedly quiet when we arrived. The city was functioning. The destruction was restricted to small pockets.

The role of an engineer

My role on the SARAID team is as an engineer. Like the technicians, I do the heavy work with drills and other kit to get into damaged buildings and find survivors, but engineers have the additional responsibility of assessing whether it is safe to go in, the safest way to enter, and whether the structure needs stabilising.

On our first day in Kathmandu, we were directed to some hotels and other residences that had collapsed, but these were better tackled with hands and spades rather than our specialist kit. They were relatively small and built with light materials that were not difficult to move. Also, victims inside would either already have been rescued or would have perished, as the mounds of debris would have left them no voids to survive in. The following day, with more teams arriving from around the world, we worked within the UN USAR Coordination Cell to divide the city up into radial sectors, and began a more systematic search.

Partially collapsed buildings were incredibly unstable. In one building we saw a door jammed in its doorframe which looked as if it was buckling, quite possibly holding much of the weight of the remaining building. Being in or around these structures was nerve-wracking but our training prepares us for the situation. We were very aware of the locals who were watching, perhaps hoping for loved ones to be found.

In the end, nearly 2,000 international rescue and medical personnel came to Nepal’s assistance; but by two weeks after the earthquake had found only 16 survivors alive. Partly because of the time taken to reach the country and the remote areas in need, but also because of the non-engineered construction leaving no voids for people to survive in. But there was also a positive side, in being able to demonstrate to the Nepalese government and local people on the ground that we were there to help, and to provide people with closure that there was no one trapped alive within the buildings that we searched.

After search and rescue

When the international search-and-rescue operations ended, the Nepalese government asked for engineers to stay on to assess the safety of key buildings, like schools and hospitals; a task I volunteered for.

After my official assessments I returned to historic Bhaktapur. I’d visited the town in 2008 testing ideas developed as an Oxford student to make the local adobe mud-walled houses more resilient against earthquakes. These houses are lived in by the very poorest, and are incredibly weak. Retrofitting had to be simple and affordable. We were testing and disseminating a system devised by Tokyo University, which clads the walls with a mesh formed of the kind of polypropylene strapping that you find in flatpacks. The mesh is flexible, compared to the adobe walls that it encases, so it is not designed to prevent cracking, but to inhibit crack propagation and the separation of load bearing walls, giving people more time to escape. On my return to the building that was retrofitted in 2008, the mud render was cracked, but the walls survived and the two storey building stood.

Engineering and volunteering

That project, at the start of my engineering career, set a pattern reflecting my interest in using engineering to help people. I joined the charity Engineers without Borders, worked with ICE [Institution of Civil Engineers] President Paul Jowitt to write the Toolkit for Delivery of the Millennium Development Goals, then joined SARAID once I became a Chartered Engineer, and also took part in two Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT) reconnaissance missions to Japan to study the tsunami damage in 2011.

UCL's EPICentre

Through EEFIT I met Tiziana Rossetto, the inspirational leader of UCL’s EPICentre, which is a hub of multidisciplinary expertise on disaster prevention. Looking for places to do a PhD, I saw lots of options, but very few choices; EPICentre was number one. My research there is closely related to what I saw in Japan – studying the resilience of buildings against the forces of tsunamis.

Pioneer magazine

Read more on EPICentre in EPSRC’s Pioneer magazine (p28)&


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Joshua Macabuag
Name: Mr Joshua Macabuag
Job title: Engineer
Organisation: SARAID