In Banda Aceh, Indonesia, one of the most remote locations on earth and the place hardest hit by the tsunami 14 months ago, Elizabeth Hausler finished the first of 11 earthquake-resistant houses she is building there. Through her nonprofit organization, Build Change, Hausler is teaching the people of Aceh how to build the homes so that they can continue the work after she leaves.
"Sometimes I wake up or sometimes I'm standing out here in this beautiful rice paddy and I'm wondering, 'How did I get here?' And at the same time I'm thinking, 'Wow, it's so great that I'm here.'"
The tsunami killed 169,000 people, and almost every structure was damaged or destroyed. Seismologists believe another natural disaster is inevitable, and it will most likely be an earthquake, they said, because Banda Aceh lies directly over a huge fault line.
How did this 36-year-old daughter of a mason with a doctorate in engineering decide to travel to the world's earthquake-prone areas and help build homes? Her journey began when she saw the twin towers coming down on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I was watching the terrible events of that day unfold on TV," she said. "And it was really at that moment that I realized I just had to do something with my engineering skills for the benefit of humanity not for the decline of it."
Taking Expertise to Indonesia
First, Hausler won a fellowship to study earthquake-resistant housing in India. After learning her craft, she headed to Indonesia.
She determined that the houses in Aceh needed wider foundations and, more important, steel reinforcement between well-made bricks. But getting the best bricks wasn't always easy.
"We'd spend a lot of time testing the bricks and watching the step-by-step process they go through," she said.
In January, Hausler's father traveled to Indonesia to lend his expertise: brick laying.
"Even when she was, say, 12, and I began to bring her to work with me, she wasn't afraid to do anything," said her father, Don. "She'd get dirty, she'd drive a fork lift, she'd lay bricks."
Though she is only building 11 homes herself, Hausler hopes the know-how she has imparted to the local people will mean many more safe homes.
"When we come back in five years," she said, "I would hope the families are still living in the houses and satisfied with them. And second, I'd like to see that other houses that have been built in all the villages where we're going to be working next year are also safe from earthquakes."