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A program created by Rotary scholar Marco Faggella is training engineers around the world to make buildings safer in earthquakes

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We’re in the car, and my traveling companion and local guide Marco Faggella is blasting the stereo. He wants me to hear the music of a friend of his, who has reinterpreted southern Italy’s traditional tarantella rhythms as intoxicating trance tunes. Over dinner the previous evening, Faggella, a member of the Rotary Club of Roma Nord-Est, filled me in on his Top Secret Plan to get his friend to play at the Burning Man art festival. In that conversation, Faggella also educated me on the finer points of Italian mysticism, Magna Graecia, and Pythagoras.

Faggella is full of grand plans: When he launched a film festival in 2009 in the beach town of Maratea in partnership with Rotary District 2100 (in part to show off the Oscar-nominated polio film The Final Inch), he called Francis Ford Coppola, whose grandparents came from the region. Coppola ended up sending a video message.  

Marco Faggella, who was left homeless by an earthquake as a child, inspects a model house that engineers use to study the effects of simulated earthquakes. 

I’m here to find out more about another of his big ideas, this one in his professional life. Faggella, who was trained through a Rotary scholarship, is a research associate in seismic engineering at Sapienza University of Rome. He looks at how to construct buildings – or retrofit existing ones – so that they don’t tumble down if an earthquake strikes. It’s a passion that makes sense given the earthquake risk in Italy, including in his hometown of Potenza, the city we are visiting at the instep of Italy’s boot. 

Most of the 60,000 people who die in natural disasters every year are killed by a building collapse during an earthquake in a developing country. Instead of going into reaction mode each time an earthquake strikes, Faggella thought, why not educate people to construct safer buildings so that fewer people are injured? 

He looked to his experiences with Rotary to come up with a plan. 

At the University of Basilicata at Potenza, where Faggella did some of his research, engineers have built a model house that they shake with hydraulic pistons to simulate the effects of an earthquake. It’s made of clay bricks with strong floor beams but weak columns, the way houses were built for thousands of years until modern building codes began to account for seismic activity in the first half of the 20th century. “We’ve predicted extensively how this house will behave, ” Faggella explains as he stands in front of the model. “The bricks will break. The columns will topple.” 

Around the world, people still live in these unsafe structures. “If you look at Kathmandu, a lot of Kathmandu is like this. If you look at Karachi, a lot of Karachi is like this,” Faggella says. “Houses like these can accommodate a lot of people quickly, but they account for a lot of the earthquake risk in the world.”

For example, on 26 December 2003, a 6.6 magnitude earthquake struck Bam, Iran, killing more than 30,000 people and damaging 45,000 homes, many of which were built with mud bricks and didn’t comply with regulations set more than a decade earlier. Four days earlier, a 6.5 quake hit the central coast of California, where the losses were limited to two deaths and 500 damaged buildings, thanks to the implementation of modern seismic codes. 

After a series of earthquakes hit Italy in 2016, the government created financial incentives for people to retrofit their homes to make them seismically safe.

While we know much about earthquake-safe construction, the application of this knowledge still lags, even in a developed country such as Italy, where 60 percent of the buildings are more than 100 years old. The week before my visit, the Italian government passed guidelines to classify the seismic risk of buildings, along with tax incentives to promote retrofitting them with anti-seismic measures. A senior official from Sapienza University of Rome helped develop the rating system based on the work of the team of researchers to which Faggella belongs.  

Faggella had a personal experience with all this at an early age. In November 1980, when he was five years old, he was watching a soccer game with his dad in their third-floor apartment in Potenza. “All of a sudden, everything started to shake like crazy, ” he recalls. “There was rubble coming down from the ceiling. We felt like the whole house was falling apart.” His dad grabbed him, his mom picked up his two-year-old sister, and they rushed, shoeless, down the stairs onto the tiny piazza below, where a crowd of shocked people had gathered, wondering what was going on. 

More than 3,000 people died, and over 200,000 were left homeless as a result of the earthquake – including Faggella’s family. They spent the first night at the farm of a family friend, Faggella and his sister sleeping on a coffee table. The schools closed for a few months, so they moved with other families to a beach town two hours away. His parents never felt safe with the idea of returning to the old apartment, so they built an earthquake-proof home in the countryside. 

Reconstruction after the 1980 quake took years, and the work was plagued by corruption and graft. Government money paid for roads to nowhere and factories that never opened. Despite millions of dollars spent in the region, 28,500 people were still living in canvas tents a decade after the earthquake.

You can still see the effects of the earthquake nearly 40 years later. As we drive around the city, Faggella points out the movie theater that never reopened and the clock on the town hall still stopped at 7:34, the time of the earthquake. Pre-earthquake cookie-cutter high-rises that speculators built without seismic provisions are an outrage to someone in his line of work.

Faggella studied seismic engineering at the University of Basilicata at Potenza, which was established after the quake. His Ph.D. adviser, Enrico Spacone, suggested he look into a Rotary scholarship for an opportunity to do research in the United States. Faggella called Gaetano Laguardia, a family friend who was a member of the Rotary Club of Potenza, who helped him through the application process. He received an Ambassadorial Scholarship, the predecessor to today’s global grant scholarships, to study at the University of California at San Diego, another city on a major fault. 

Through a scholarship program set up by Faggella, students are conducting research in Matera, a 9,000-year-old city in southern Italy that will be a European Capital of Culture in 2019.

In San Diego, Faggella connected with Fary Moini, who was later honored at the U.S. White House in 2012 as one of 10 Champions of Change, and Stephen R. Brown, who went on to become a Rotary Foundation trustee. Moini and Brown, members of the Rotary Club of La Jolla Golden Triangle, have long been involved in Rotary projects in Afghanistan, including establishing several Rotary clubs. Inspired by their work as well as that of a professional contact, Brian Tucker of GeoHazards International (a nongovernmental organization that works in disaster preparedness), Faggella successfully applied for a Rotary Peace Fellowship to study the intersection of natural disasters and peace. 

He was ready for a career working in developing countries, bringing his engineering background to bear, but fate intervened. As a teenager, he had been a daredevil: He was a competitive skier, he cliff dove, he did flips while wakeboarding. But when he was 17, a motorcycle accident nearly severed his foot at the ankle. Doctors saved his foot, but just barely. While in San Diego, Faggella had a bone graft, but he had to decline the peace fellowship and set aside his dreams for a career in developing countries.

Instead, he went back home, joined Rotary himself, and came up with his biggest idea of all: He created a scholarship program to bring students from high seismic-risk countries in Asia to the European Union to study earthquake engineering. When they return to their countries, they become professors or government officials who work to make construction safer. 

“I managed to get developing countries to come to me,” he says later as we look out over a ghost town that was never rebuilt after the 1980 earthquake, a destiny he is trying to prevent for other communities. “I live in a cool region that everyone wants to come to, but I’m stuck with this, let’s say, disability. Let’s just flip the story.” 

From 2010 to ’14, 104 students and researchers from 14 Asian countries studied at five European universities, funded by a €2.5 million grant from the European Union. Faggella’s Rotary district in Rome helps provide hospitality for visiting students.

“It’s a kind of dilemma that Rotarians face all the time, ” notes Stephen Brown. “To what extent can one person make a difference that would impact hundreds, as opposed to providing food and shelter after the fact? Rotarians can’t help themselves – when there is a natural disaster, they’re going to write checks. If we look more at the cause of the problem, it’s a better investment.”

This elementary school in Potenza features braces that dissipate energy, one way to retrofit buildings to make them safer during an earthquake. 

Twenty-two of the scholars who went through the program were from Nepal, including Surya Narayan Shrestha, the deputy director of Nepal’s National Society for Earthquake Technology. Now he is using his knowledge in the rebuilding after its devastating earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people in April 2015. (Faggella appeared with him on Italian television shortly after the quake.)

Aslam Faqeer is another scholar who went through the program. Before studying in Italy, Faqeer had taken courses on seismic engineering at NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi, a city where he estimates 20 to 30 percent of structures are earthquake safe. “At that time, people in Pakistan had limited knowledge,” he says. Faqeer received his Ph.D. at Sapienza University of Rome in 2015, advised by Faggella and Spacone. Now an assistant professor in Karachi, he has trained more than 120 master’s students and practicing engineers on modern seismic analysis and design, and researched how structures will perform if they are built to international standards. 

On my final day in Basilicata, Faggella drives me to the ancient city of Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that will be a European Capital of Culture in 2019. The city dates back 9,000 years and is among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements. Early inhabitants drilled into the city’s cliffs to make caves, then used the materials to make bricks and build houses on the caves’ faces. 

Looking to expand its international collaborations, the University of Basilicata at Matera asked Faggella to set up another scholarship program. This time, the initiative aimed at protecting cultural heritage sites in Latin America and Europe from natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods. A total of 119 students are participating: 83 traveling from Latin America to study at schools across Europe, and 36 Europeans going to Latin America to study at universities there. The program, which is running from 2014 to 2018, is funded through a €3.7 million grant from the EU. 

We stop outside one of the cave buildings, but this one is surrounded by scaffolding and covered with tarps. While Matera is not in a high-risk earthquake zone, its protection is still of concern because of its cultural significance. Students here do simulation trials in the lab and advanced computer modeling before they do any work on-site. “We prefer to do it in a virtual environment rather than go and smash an artifact, ” Faggella says. 

Rotary’s investment in Faggella and the exponential number of students touched by the programs he has set up are paving the way to keep this and other culturally important structures around for years to come, he says. “I’ve always tried to drag the science community toward cooperating with the international aid field,” he says. “Rotary gave me the idea of how to make this have a large, global impact.” 

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