Colfax Twp. man to spread word about earthquakes in Pakistan

NICK ZOA

COLFAX TWP. — For Nick Zoa, of Colfax Township, traveling around the world is routine.

Zoa only lives in his cottage on Clear Lake during the summer months. In the past 10 years, he has been to scores of countries on almost every continent. But when Zoa — a retired seismologist and software developer — travels abroad, he usually doesn’t go as a tourist.

Later this year, Zoa is flying to one of the biggest cities in Pakistan to teach locals there about the potential for a devastating earthquake that could soon be headed to their area — and how they could avoid a potentially catastrophic loss of life if and when it happens.

“We don’t know when this will occur, but there’s ample reason to believe that a very destructive earthquake could be coming to an area that has an awful lot of people living in it,” Zoa said this week. “There’s nothing the people in Pakistan can do about the earthquake itself, but they can certainly be prepared for what’s going to happen and what comes after.”

Islamabad, a city of just over 1 million people, is the capital of Pakistan and a major contributor to the country’s economy. Islamabad is located in northeastern Pakistan, near the border of India, on the foothills of some of Earth’s tallest mountains, the Himalayas.

A similar effect to that which produced those massive mountains can also cause powerful earthquakes in the area, Zoa said. A magnitude-7.6 quake in 2005 killed 87,000 people. A century earlier, 20,000 people were killed in a magnitude-7.8 quake.

“Between those two epicenters is a 200- to 300-kilometer-long segment of the Himalayan fault system that has not produced a major earthquake since 1555,” Zoa said. “But we know what is causing the earthquakes in this region, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure, it will happen here someday.”

Zoa has previously undertaken similar projects in countries such as Haiti, Chile and Japan, he said. His work in Chile in 2010 was particularly noteworthy, as a magnitude-8.8 earthquake triggered a tsunami and destroyed several coastal towns, but only killed 500 people.

“That was because at 3 a.m. when the earthquake hit, (people living there) got out of bed, put on the shoes they had left near their beds, grabbed the flashlights they had near their beds, got in their cars and drove up into their hills. It took 15 minutes and they got out before the wave came through. Preparedness was key,” Zoa said.

Zoa will arrive in Islamabad in November and stay through January. His first step, he said, will be to determine the current earthquake activity in the area, by speaking with local seismologists. From there, he will visit police stations, hospitals, universities and architectural firms to learn about earthquake preparedness in the area, and offer helpful advice.

He will also consult with government officials and public servants on what to do after the earthquake hits — a potentially interesting wrinkle, considering preexisting land disputes in the area and the cost involved in disaster relief.

“The area north of Islamabad is claimed by both India and Pakistan,” Zoa said. “It’s complicated, because it means, when the earthquake occurs, who is responsible for the 5 million people who live in this area? Does anybody want to help them? Are the Indians going to say they’re Pakistani and vice versa? We’ll be asking those questions.”

Zoa is traveling to Pakistan through the Fulbright Program, a prestigious scholarship established through the United States government to improve relations and diplomacy through the exchange of ideas and skills.

“They figure that if we do something that is absolutely non-political, non-military, we can establish good relationships with those countries. If you spend money on this, you don’t have to spend that kind of money on bullets,” Zoa said. “It’s a humanitarian effort.”

In the interest of security, he will be staying in government housing, and will have a driver to shuttle him around — he won’t be allowed to use public transit or taxis.

Pakistan is an Islamic republic, where the most commonly spoken language is Urdu, although English is used in official business and government documents. While Zoa has previously been to the bordering countries of Afghanistan, India and China, he has never been to Pakistan.

Given the constraints being put on by the government, and the cultural differences, the trip could be seen as a challenge. But for Zoa, it’s a worthwhile test.

“My ultimate goal is to visit every country in the world. I don’t want to see Pakistan as a tourist. Here, I have an opportunity to go in and work with real people,” Zoa said.

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