How understanding California mudslides can help prevent them

In Campus News, Local News, News, State News
(Caitlin Bartusick / Daily Titan)

Binod Tiwari Ph.D., a Cal State Fullerton associate professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, is no stranger to natural disasters.

Tiwari has dedicated 26 years of his life to researching landslide, mudslide and earthquake mitigation.

From Japan to his native country Nepal, Tiwari has traveled across the globe to study and conduct research following deadly disasters, including the 2011 Japan earthquake and 2015 Nepal earthquake.

He said the lacking infrastructure in his country made transportation difficult and landslides frequent. To collect water, his mother would have to walk at least 10 to 15 minutes from their mud-mortar house, and surrounding roadways were often prone to landslides.

Tiwari saw an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of younger generations while he was a geotechnical engineer for the Government of Nepal, Department of Roads.

“The only way you can save yourself, your community or your structures from disaster is by being familiar with it. Knowing it better will help you to reduce the impact,” Tiwari said.

In a natural disaster-prone region like Southern California, where record wildfires and ruinous mudslides have recently left devastation behind in Montecito, Tiwari and his students are given the tools to study and simulate potential scenarios, seeking remedies for these complex, cataclysmic events.

“We are generating the workforce to the community by training our students,” Tiwari said. “The students are eager, enthusiastic to go and tell and educate people.”

With their 8-foot-long rainwater simulator, Tiwari and his students adjust different variables, such as soil density, rainfall volume and rain duration, to quantify different methods for mudslide and landslide prevention.

Wildfires contribute greatly to these subsequent disaster events. With ash and loss of vegetation, rainfall is unable to pierce beneath the surface of the soil, and steep slopes increase the likelihood of powerful debris flows, Tiwari said.

In early January, approximately 100 homes were destroyed and 300 were damaged in the Montecito mudslides, officials told the Los Angeles Times.

As technology continues to advance, access to information and research on these natural disasters will undoubtedly work toward remediation, Tiwari said. As of right now, it appears that an overwhelming amount of time, money and effort is being spent on rebuilding as opposed to research and prevention.

“If this repeats again, that’s a problem. We should consider this as a lesson we learn from Mother Nature and we should be prepared for that,” Tiwari said.

To Tiwari, preparation can best be carried out through education.

“He’s contributed to geotechnical engineering not only by promoting his students to feel passionate about this topic but also by publishing journals and papers,” said Tiwari’s former master’s student, Santiago Caballero. “He’s just an inspiration to all future generations.”

To remedy these forces of nature, more work needs to be done, Tiwari said. Simply preserving the painful memory of the disaster can lead to constructive community rebuilding efforts.

“The problem we have in the state, in the city, in the county and at the local level is we are ignoring the value of the research that universities can do,” Tiwari said. “If some county, city, state or federal government wants the university to do research on something, it is a peanut compared to the construction costs.”

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