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Learning from 1989: Stanford engineer studies the aftermath of earthquakes

Professor Anne Kiremidjian is an expert at assessing the likely intensity and duration of earthquakes and estimating the probable damage.

Anne Kiremidjian, professor of civil and environmental engineering, has studied dozens of earthquakes since coming to Stanford in 1972. | Photo: Rod Searcey

Civil engineering Professor Anne Kiremidjian was idling at a traffic light near the Stanford campus at 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989, when she felt a sudden jolt and thought her car had been rear-ended.

“I looked up, but there was nothing behind me in the mirror,” she recalled on the 25th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. “Then I noticed the traffic light swaying overhead and the cars in front of me moving up and down like a wave.”

Kiremidjian had, of course, witnessed the seismic wave caused by the 6.9 magnitude quake that was centered northeast of Santa Cruz, resulting in dozens of deaths and widespread damage, and famously knocking down a span of the Bay Bridge.

Kiremidjian, who has studied the aftermaths of dozens of quakes since coming to Stanford in 1972, said Northern Californians were comparatively lucky.

Loma Prieta ruptured a 22-mile stretch of the San Andreas Fault. By comparison, the 1906 quake, which had an estimated magnitude of 7.8, tore through 267 miles of Northern California.

“Loma Prieta was a baby earthquake in comparison to 1906,” she said.

Kiremidjian should know. She is an expert at probabilistic seismic hazard assessment, studying the nature of specific faults, assessing the likely intensity and duration of ground shaking during a quake and estimating the probable damage given the type, age and construction quality of local structures.

Earlier this month Kiremidjian was honored by the American Society of Civil Engineers for her lifetime achievement in research and her commitment to education, especially for her efforts to inspire young women to become engineers.

Born to an Armenian family that moved to avoid persecution, Kiremidjian was a teenager when she came to the United States from Bulgaria in 1965. She steamed through the Bosporus Straits, admiring the dome of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, and stopped briefly in Athens to marvel at the Acropolis before her family resumed its odyssey to New York City with its modern high-rise structures. This early exposure to ancient and modern buildings inspired her to pursue civil engineering.

Settling in New York City, Kiremidjian entered public high school speaking not a word of English. But she excelled at math and science, and after being fired from a secretarial job – “I’m still a lousy typist,” she said – she was offered a chance to study at Queens College, where she started classes in 1968.

“In one instant my life turned around and my career began,” recalled Kiremidjian, who found that her skills often landed her among men who doubted her abilities.

“Don’t ever tell me I can’t do something, I’ll try that much harder,” said Kiremidjian, who, in 1972, came to study civil engineering at Stanford after graduating with honors from Columbia.

She arrived on campus just as Haresh C. Shah, now the Obayashi Professor in the School of Engineering, Emeritus, was developing a program in earthquake engineering. One of her first assignments involved surveying the damage to Managua caused by the earthquake that devastated the Nicaraguan capital in December 1972.

“It was an exciting time,” recalled Kiremidjian, who earned her doctorate in 1977. “The John A. Blume Earthquake Engineering Center was forming. I was at the center of all of these developments, and many doors were opened for me.” She took an integral part in the growth of the center, including serving as co-director from 1987 to 1994 and director from 1995 to 2002.

She became an assistant professor in civil engineering in 1978, advancing to associate professor in 1985 and full professor in 1991.

When Loma Prieta struck Stanford, all these experiences came home. Among other lessons, the temblor proved that it was possible to re-engineer older buildings. A case in point was Roble Hall. Once slated for demolition and replacement, alumni support led to a change of plans. A seismic upgrade and other modernizations allowed it to shrug off Loma Prieta.

“It shows that, when you do a well-planned retrofit, structures can be made safe,” Kiremidjian said.

To help assess the structural health of individual buildings, in 1995 Kiremidjian developed the first wireless structural monitoring sensors with her colleague Teresa Meng, now the Reid Weaver Dennis Professor of Electrical Engineering and professor of computer science, emerita, and doctoral student Erik Straser.

The sensors can measure how a structure responds to small vibrations, like those caused by a big truck rumbling down the street, as well as large shaking caused by a strong earthquake.

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