Before 2010 I had never seen the destruction caused by an earthquake, let alone felt the ground shake. I was the first guest to return to the Montana Hotel (see picture above) in Port-au-Prince Haiti, where weeks before 90 people had died.
In the post-disaster chaos that always follows a natural disaster my job was to develop new housing projects for the Haitian government and the Clinton Foundation, which was hard to do in a country so damaged by poverty, corruption, and the earthquake. Coming from a stable and developed country it was difficult to stay focused when outside my hotel and offices were thousands of recently home-proud families adjusting to a new life inside emergency tents. After 3 years of living in Haiti, I married a Mexican journalist and moved to Mexico City. From one seismic country to another.
The year that I settled in Mexico there were several magnitude 6 earthquakes and 2 magnitude 7s. Each of these would cause cracks in the walls of our apartment and break windows. Every Mexican in their mid-thirties or older has a vivid recollection of the 1985 earthquake where 10,000 people died due to building collapses, and with the arrival of our first baby I soon developed anxiety of this constant danger.
Around the time I arrived, I heard that the Mexican government had one of the few Earthquake Early-Warning systems (EEW) in the world, called SASMEX, but unfortunately the alert was only available to a few schools and government buildings. I worked with an engineer and developed a prototype alarm which allowed citizens to receive this alert in their homes.
Grillo Alarm Device, 2014
The device worked well, and continues to work well, which prompted me to create a social enterprise that would help promote it: Grillo. Grillo literally means cricket in Spanish, and helped describe some of the properties of the device; small, loud, and Mexican (grillo or chapulin, is a well-loved dish and also park in Mexico).
Mexico City has strong earthquakes approximately every 6 months, and many of our users were beginning to complain that our alarm would sound when there wasn’t shaking, or vice versa. Around this time we read a study from a university that demonstrated that only 1 in 4 alerts from SASMEX were accurate. We had to explain that we simply broadcast an existing signal and didn’t share responsibility for its accuracy.
Grillo’s Earthquake Early Warning
SASMEX was created in the 1990s and used very expensive sensor stations that limited its national coverage, as well as a long-wave radio alerts that can’t penetrate building walls. That’s when we began to think about creating our own seismic sensors and alarms.
Grillo was joined in 2015 by several world-class seismologists and we set about the problem of creating a modern EEW using new technologies to democratize earthquake resiliency in vulnerable communities. With funding from USAID, Grillo was able to develop its own seismic sensors, algorithms and alarm apps/devices. Our system is now less than 1% the cost of typical EEW, and takes months rather than decades to build.
We proved that our solution works very well in both Mexico and Chile, indeed this is now the first every international EEW system, and now want to democratize access so that communities around the world (Nepal, Turkey, Indonesia, the Caribbean) can also benefit from similar deployments.
To achieve this, we are releasing all of our years of data, algorithms and sensor schematics with our initiative OpenEEW. Our hope is that developers, hackers and makers around the world will help deploy similar EEWs in their territories.
Buildings kill, not earthquakes
In September 2017, again I found myself surrounded by the devastation from an earthquake, but this time in Mexico City. It was lunch time and I was on my way to collect my children from school when the shaking began. It was more intense than any I had felt before. For days the power was out in our neighborhood, and we worried if our building had become damaged.
Most businesses in Mexico City stopped operating but at Grillo we found a renewed purpose, to help improve resiliency in a very real way for all our friends, families and neighbors.
We have since developed a new use for our sensors which we call Grillo Pulse. We locate them in buildings and they constantly monitor structural movement, alerting people if their building has potentially become compromised and unsafe. We have been installing this in schools, offices and apartment buildings in Mexico.
I am fortunate to work with very talented people, with the potential to save many lives in seismically-vulnerable communities. If you want to learn more and participate please visit Grillo.