Dr Selvakumaran brings engineering support to earthquake rescue

SARAID volunteers dig through rubble to free a girl after the earthquake in Turkey and Syria

Dr Sakthy Selvakumaran used her engineering expertise to support an earthquake search and rescue team in Turkey. She reports on her experience there and the way volunteering allows her to use her understanding of technology to help in a practical way.

Newnham Fellow Dr Sakthy Selvakumaran worked as part of an emergency rescue team in Turkey immediately after the earthquake, assessing building safety as they worked round the clock to free people who were trapped. Sakthy, a structural engineer, flew with fellow volunteers from SARAID (Search and Rescue Assistance in Disaster) to join the huge international rescue effort, arriving within 48 hours of the quake in February. They worked in the province of Kahramanmaraş to search for people and help get them out.

One rescue came when someone heard a phone ringing from inside a collapsed building and set up cans to detect vibration. There was a lot of noise but by tapping out a rhythm they sent a signal to the person they believed might be trapped and when they heard the same rhythm tapped back they knew someone was inside, alive.

“We decided to remove one floor of concrete and could see a bit of hair. It was a girl who was 15. People had been searching the area before but she had been in and out of consciousness, so was missed. When she was freed her big concern was for her family, her cat and for her Harry Potter books.”

Sakthy was in the area for a week. “Time went quickly. I was working with other structural engineers, advising on where the structural load was likely to be through the building, crack patterns and other signs, so we can see where was more likely to be safe and what could be removed without bringing the whole thing down on the rescue team. We are making a best guess without knowing the materials, how the building was built, the standards it was built to.”

Sakthy was funded by a Senior Members Research Support grant to buy some equipment for SARAID deployments which would then form part of her research. The charity are the only UK voluntary team to be UN qualified as a Light Team in Urban Search and Rescue (USAR). Forum funding paid for equipment including a Go Pro to capture if buildings were moving, and crack meters. They were used in Turkey to monitor buildings as the team worked, to check for signs of movement and ensure people weren’t at further risk.

Sakthy Selvakumaran is an Isaac Newton Trust Fellow, exploring satellite monitoring of urban environments. She leads a multidisciplinary research group combining civil engineering and satellite remote sensing, looking at how satellites can help monitor a range of applications, from the impacts of natural disasters, to air quality in cities, to detecting signs of impending failure in bridges and other critical infrastructure.

She worked internationally in industry and international development, becoming a Chartered Civil Engineer on projects from designing new bridges to working on sites to reconstruct housing destroyed by earthquakes, before returning to academia.

“My family are from Sri Lanka so I’ve seen the impact of damage to infrastructure from the civil war and natural disaster there, which drew me to work in post emergency response initially. Academia allows me to look at the big picture too, and explore the use of technology but volunteering with SARAID I can use that in a practical way to help.”

In Turkey and Syria she said there is still a need to do much more. “The earthquake is out of the news but there are still so many people that need help. Some people are in shelters or can stay with relatives or friends further away but they need support until they can go home and back to work and pick up their lives. Although Turkey was many qualified engineers who can rebuild, it will take time.”

You can find out more about SARAID and donate on their website here.

Three Turkish PhD students in history at Cambridge, Elif Yumru (Newnham), Mehmet Doğar (Selwyn) and Zeynep Olgun (Newnham), set up a special educational bursary fund for students in Turkey who themselves or their families have been affected by the earthquakes. Find out more and donate here.