The 15-story Alto Rio apartment building in Concepcion, Chile, was destroyed in the magnitude 8.8 earthquake. The building has since been demolished.

JUST AFTER FEBRUARY'S MASSIVE earthquake in Chile, one 12-year-old girl's actions saved the lives of everyone in her remote village. For HSU's Lori Dengler, it was one more example of the importance of preparing for disaster.

The people on Robinson Crusoe Island, 400 miles off Chile's coast, felt the quake only minimally, says Dengler, chair of HSU's Department of Geology. So islanders were unaware of the life-threatening risk of a tsunami.

Dengler, who led a reconnaissance team to Chile a month after the disaster, learned that an alert 12-year-old girl on the island had the presence of mind to call her uncle on the mainland. The girl found out that the quake was huge, ran to her village's warning bell and sounded the alarm.

"She prevented 200 deaths," Dengler says. "Here was a girl who was paying attention, who knew something about earthquakes and tsunamis, who sought more information and saved her village."

Lori Dengler and students Kelly Givins and Matt Eiben take core samples at the Mad River Slough just outside Arcata. Core samples can reveal evidence of centuries of earthquake and tsunami activity.

DENGLER IS AN INTERNATIONAL expert on earthquakes and tsunamis who has taught at HSU since completing her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley in 1979. She specializes in teaching the public how to prepare for a disaster, limit its impact and survive it unscathed. In her classes at Humboldt State – which sits atop the Cascadia Subduction zone where two tectonic plates meet – students get experience monitoring seismic data from around the globe and simulating disaster scenarios to improve preparedness.

Part of that preparedness means getting the word out – in advance – about how to respond when disaster strikes. In the recent Chile quake, loss of life was minimized in part because methods of survival had become part of the public consciousness after a major earthquake in 1960. Coastal residents had also regularly participated in evacuation drills – similar to those that Dengler has coordinated on California's North Coast. She has also overseen publication of the earthquake and tsunami preparedness magazine Living on Shaky Ground (see page 29).

Of course, news media are a key method for educating the public, and Dengler has become a go-to expert for international media. As a high-profile media analyst, she can instruct a global public about survival, while also explaining the science to reporters on deadline.

"I consider talking with the media as important as anything else I do," she says, despite her many responsibilities as chair of HSU's Department of Geology.

Dengler was in high demand by CNN, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and other news organizations during the prolonged tsunami alert that followed the historic temblor off Chile in February.

She often learns of tremors well before the media call. Both her office and home computers are linked to the California Integrated Seismic Network, a notification system for emergency managers and academics. "I get an alarm any time an earthquake of magnitude 4 or larger occurs anywhere in the world," she says. "Usually I'm aware of potentially important events before the media are."

Lori Dengler is a featured tsunami expert on the NOVA web site Wave That Shook the World.

Invaluable stories

DENGLER TRAVELED TO CHILE in March with a team of professionals to gather lessons learned, which are crucial to improving readiness for future upheavals. She is a veteran of six International Tsunami Survey Teams, which carry out post-disaster reconnaissance missions. Her professional experience spans major earthquakes and tsunamis from Papua New Guinea in 1998 to Chile in 2010.

Left to right: This 1950s seismograph still offers valuable lessons for students. "There are newer instruments available for research," says Dengler, "but our old Benioff does a great job of showing what earthquakes look like." | Dengler was instrumental in establishing the Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group on the North Coast. The group has established evacuation routes, installed sirens and posted more than 500 warning signs along the coast. | Students use the geology department's wave tank to study how tsumanis form. The tank reveals that water moves much faster at shallow depths than in deeper water.

See Lori Dengler at "Classes without Quizzes" during Homecoming & Family Weekend

In Chile with HSU graduate student Nicolas Graehl and several government specialists, Dengler evaluated the human and physical impacts of the fifth-largest earthquake ever recorded, at magnitude 8.8. It was also the first mega-thrust quake to savage an urbanized region with a built environment, comparable to cities in Japan, North America's Pacific Northwest and other developed regions of the seismically active Pacific basin.

In her dozen years traveling to disaster sites, the HSU geologist has developed what she calls "the deep interview technique." She says longer talks with survivors produce the most instructive lessons to help improve quake/tsunami readiness. Instead of swooping into a stricken locale for 15-minute chats, Dengler and her colleagues linger with each survivor for an hour or two.

"To get people talking you have to really, really listen, and often they don't start telling their deeper stories until 45 or 50 minutes into the interview," Dengler says. "The more you listen, the more they're willing to give, and you get these gems, these invaluable stories."

After a deadly tsunami hit American Samoa in 2009, Dengler spoke with two cousins on the island – one a schoolteacher, one a handyman – who shared vital success stories. Crucially, they and fellow villagers were experienced in evacuation drills. There was not a single death in the whole community, the cousins told Dengler.

"One of them, who had a lot of bandages around one leg, learned after the first surge that his aunty was trapped in her house. To free her, he had to go underwater and struggle to get through a wall. He seriously injured his leg while breaking his aunt free and rescuing her from the house." Dengler says. "Now, if I had stopped the interview after 15 minutes, that story wouldn't have come out."

Searching for heroes

DENGLER'S INTERVIEW TECHNIQUE HAS another advantage: It reveals local heroes who go to extraordinary lengths to help others. When you study disasters, she says, you always discover individuals who go beyond everyday expectations at great personal risk. A nurse she met in the aftermath of Papua New Guinea in 1998 stayed on a radio all night long, immediately following the disaster. She never gave up trying to make contact and warn others.

ABOVE LEFT: Lori Dengler and Jeff Brandt interview a quake survivor at an elementary school in Afono, American Samoa, in 2009. Dengler says, "The more you listen, the more people are willing to give, and you get these gems, these invaluable stories." ABOVE RIGHT: Dengler photographs the destruction in Pellehue, Chile. The oceanside resort town was battered by a tsunami in the hours following Chile's magnitude 8.8-magnitude quake. The first waves struck minutes after the quake, and the largest wave hit the town more than an hour later.

Another factor that is crucial to readiness, or the lack of it, is pre-disaster expectations and the culture for dealing with catastrophe. Preconceived notions are terribly important because "they are often wrong," Dengler says. Chile's knowledgeable coastal population almost universally responded to the ground shaking as a warning to move fast to higher ground and escape the lethal tsunami that followed. Most of the deaths occurred at coastal campgrounds filled to capacity with inland people unaware of tsunami hazards.

In sharp contrast, just weeks before Chile's disaster, Haiti's government could barely respond to the mammoth quake that devastated Port-au-Prince and further crippled what for decades has been the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

"For Haiti, it was a knockout blow," Dengler says, comparing the two earthquakes that made headlines in quick succession. "The country was set back even more by its poor infrastructure and a dreadful economy. It simply wasn't prepared. But we learned while we traveled the South American coast that building codes and awareness of earthquakes and tsunamis are an ingrained part of the Chilean culture. Many of the elderly, going back to 1960, had gone through the magnitude 9.5 quake and the big tsunami at that time. Also, Chile is an exceptionally literate society, with technical capacity, communications networks and a health care system that is better than in the United States. These are not people living in shacks. Chile's economy continued to grow despite the quake, proof of its resilience."

All the same, hundreds died in Chile and hundreds of thousands in Haiti. "I never get used to it," Dengler confesses. "It is terribly intimate, unbelievably poignant. You come across a smashed soccer ball, all kinds of debris tangled 15 or 20 feet high in the trees, you see the strewn remnants of human lives scattered on land and in the water; and shallow graves with only sand dumped on the top of them. If you got used to it, you wouldn't learn from it anymore.".

As for graduate student Nicolas Graehl, a new father, his on-the-ground research in Chile was his first intimate encounter with death and destruction. "I hadn't thought about the human or societal impact until I saw people burning what was left of their belongings on the beach. I saw a house wiped off its foundations, a baby doll in the middle of nowhere, a bike stood up on its frame in the sand, abandoned. It reminded me of my own vulnerabilities, and of my 10-month-old son. I couldn't wait to get home to hug him."

Core Samples Reveal Ancient Quakes and Tsunamis

The upsides

CHILE'S UPHEAVAL PRODUCED MANY positive stories of response and recovery that will be useful in other countries. Shaking damage was minimal in most well-built structures and many Chileans cited books, television and other sources of information as key to their survival. Regular drills enabled coastal residents to remain calm and evacuate effectively.

On the other hand, a key lesson is that people don't realize how long tsunamis last, with fatal consequences. The Chilean onslaught, as well as North Coast tsunamis in 2006 and 1964, point to the need for greater public understanding that tsunami arrival times vary widely. "People are lulled into a false sense of security when an hour or two passes with no additional waves," the team said in its mission report. "Interestingly, this aspect of tsunamis is very similar to that of the sneaker waves that claim many lives on the West Coast each year."

In fact, Dengler has a deep sense of mission about informing local and regional communities about preparedness. She and her students, Graehl among them, staff an exhibit at the Humboldt County Fair each year to equip residents of the earthquake-prone North Coast with simple tips, like "drop, cover and hold" if you're indoors when a quake strikes. People can also pinpoint their homes or offices on tsunami maps and find out the best routes to evacuate.

She moves through her duties with inexhaustible energy, say longtime colleagues. "I have never emailed her early enough in the morning or late enough at night that I didn't get an immediate response," says Troy Nicolini, tsunami program manager for NOAA's National Weather Service, who accompanied Dengler to Chile. "Lori has limitless reserves of inspiration for her work."

Dengler says every overseas mission renews her faith in people's common humanity. "I come back to campus with a positive sense that human societies are fundamentally good, that we really need one another. There's a spiritual lesson in this: Societies are so much more multidimensional than we tend to think. It opens your eyes to the world."

"And let me tell you something," Dengler confides with a knowing smile. "Ten-to-twelve-year-old girls tend to be particularly heroic. In tsunamis, I know of three from my field experience whose quick reactions were lifesavers." End Story

Since 1986, Dengler has directed HSU's Humboldt Earthquake Education Center
Living on Shaky Ground


Now in its fourth edition under Professor Lori Dengler's stewardship, the Living on Shaky Ground handbook explains how to prepare for earthquakes and tsunamis in Northern California. Its main message: Survival and recovery depend not on chance, but on being prepared.

Dengler says one of the booklet's most important functions is encouraging conversations. Talking things through prompts people to act, she notes. "When you're ready ahead of time, you are much more likely to recover quickly."


  • Identify household or workplace hazards in advance (objects likely to topple or fall).
  • Draw up a preparedness plan and discuss it with family members (example: a shared list of important phone numbers).
  • Organize disaster kits (food, water, emergency backpacks). Pinpoint weaknesses (shore up brick chimneys, anchor wood stoves).


  • Drop, cover and hold: Get under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture and hold on to it until the shaking stops.


  • If near a coast, get to higher ground.
  • Check for injuries and damage.
  • Follow your plan.

Learn more:

Student Uses Camera to Help Haiti, Photos by Travis Turner

Two Days After the Jan.12 earthquake struck Haiti, HSU journalism student Travis Turner decided to travel there to document the destruction.

"I thought it would be a good opportunity to see first-hand what was happening, rather than relying on mainstream media reports," says Turner.

Less than two weeks later, Turner was in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, where the quake damage was most prevalent. "I've never seen destruction on that scale before. You can't get away from it. It's so humbling," he says. "I was out of my comfort zone. Your senses are bombarded by all the tragedy. There are things happening there you just don't see in the U.S."

His work was subsequently exhibited at Arcata's Venatore Gallery, with proceeds benefitting the Maison Fortune Orphanage in Hench, Haiti.

Another HSU student, Patrick Hawkins, a forestry major, is spending four months in Haiti this fall with his brother. They are leading groups of relief workers in the ongoing effort to help Haiti recover from its devastating Jan. 12 earthquake.