Rating the severity of natural disasters

Jithamala Caldera, who lived through the Sri Lanka tsunami, helps gauge the need for international assistance after natural disasters.

By Lisha Hassanali
April 2015

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a community fire to a large-scale tsunami. Currently, the impacts of disasters cannot be compared but that’s changing thanks to a new scale being developed by a Schulich School of Engineering graduate student.

“Right now, we qualitatively measure large-scale disasters and there is no way to reference them against each other,” says Jithamala Caldera. “My research is on a multi-dimensional scale that looks at the severity of disasters based on a cross-section of data including fatalities, injuries, costs of damage and affected population giving a rating from zero to ten. Zero being no impact and ten being a world-wide cataclysm.”

A global audience

Caldera presented a poster of her master's research, "Analysis and Classification of Natural Disasters", at the 2015 United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan. The international conference was attended by policymakers, government officials, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), technical experts and other stakeholders.

“When I saw the disaster, the suffering that people went through I knew I wanted to help."


For Caldera, the UN conference was an incredible opportunity to discuss the importance of a common global scale for all types of natural disasters, as well as its applications. “Being present at the WCDRR is significant, it was a chance to promote shared responsibility in risk reduction as well as building resilience in the face of disasters. I was able to meet and exchange ideas with world level experts as well as gain cutting-edge knowledge regarding the current global focus of my research.”

Witnessing disaster

This research is both academic and personal for Caldera. In 2004, she was an undergrad at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka when the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated parts of the country. While she and her family were safe, Caldera witnessed many friends and fellow citizens lose everything.

“When I saw the disaster, the suffering that people went through I knew I wanted to help,” said Caldera. “I volunteered in the aid effort delivering food and emergency supplies but I also took an academic interest.”

Caldera’s background in math and statistics led her to further research on disasters in Sri Lanka and in Canada. She was drawn to the Schulich School of Engineering because of professor Chan Wirasinghe’s research on tsunamis.

“Jithamala’s work is unique and crucial,” says Wirasinghe, professor in the civil engineering department and Caldera’s graduate supervisor. “There is no scale right now that is supported with data and analysis that can rate any natural disaster. A common global scale is necessary to assess a disaster for various purposes such as international assistance.”

Next, Caldera plans to find collaborators in different fields who will benefit from a common global severity scale such as disaster managers, emergency services, and international and local relief agencies.  


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