Dormant for more than 8,000 years, the El Casitas Volcano’s base offered a vast swath of fertile farmland for the people of northwest Nicaragua, but just because the volcano was dormant didn’t mean it couldn’t be deadly. On October 30, 1998, after five days of more than 50 inches of rain from Hurricane Mitch, the volcano’s crown burst, triggering an avalanche that gained momentum as it traveled down the steep 5,000-foot slope. “The Mountain That Walks,” as the locals call landslides, killed more than 2,000 people and obliterated two towns in its trajectory covering more than six miles.

Seventy miles south of the devastation, Marina Drazba ’05 felt Hurricane Mitch’s impact. She was in high school and remembers all the bridges being washed out when she was learning to drive. When her mother took a job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), she listened in on discussions with other scientists and gained firsthand knowledge about the conditions that created the El Casitas landslide. What she learned stuck with her and ultimately led to her career as a landslide mitigation expert with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Drazba’s first UNHCR assignment in 2018 was at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, as a disaster risk reduction specialist. Known for its beautiful beaches, Cox’s Bazar became famous in 2017 as the refuge for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people escaping persecution in Myanmar. The refugees soon established a settlement on previously uninhabited land that was unstable at best.

With monsoon season fast approaching, a team was in the throes of dealing with impending flood issues at the refugee camp when Drazba arrived. Drazba, who lives by Louis Pasteur’s famous saying, “Fortune favors the prepared mind,” quickly set to work developing landslide susceptibility maps and determining how to stabilize a susceptible slope. At the same time, she worked on her doctoral thesis on how to transmit technical messaging to a nontechnical audience, which perfectly described the Rohingya, for whom landslides were completely foreign. 

“I’ve realized the importance of communications and how we, as people who hold technical knowledge, need to distill information,” says Drazba. “Landslides – which are about physics, chemistry, geology and mathematics – need to be brought to a level that a community with no education, and often an oral history but no written history, can understand.”

Knowing that she needed to get information quickly to the refugees so they could implement preventative measures and be prepared, Drazba got creative. She tapped into her experience in Nicaragua and came up with The Mountain That Walks, a picture book that could be used during story time to share the dangers of landslides and how to prevent them.

“Relatable technical communication of any hazard is one of the biggest gaps we have in knowledge,” explains Drazba. “There’s a lack of understanding in the general population, and I don’t think as experts that we’ve done a particularly good job of explaining hazards. As scientists and engineers, communication that is useful to the common person is definitely a schism we have that needs to be bridged.”

Photo by J. Kat Photo, Inc./Portrait of Marina Drazba in San Diego, California.

Geology Rocks
When it came time to choose a college, Drazba – who grew up on shrimp farms in Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala and Nicaragua – knew she wanted something small. She learned about the College from a friend with a parent who worked at the American embassy in Nicaragua and decided to pay
a visit.

“CofC felt relaxed, more like Latin America,” she says. “I didn’t need a vehicle, and I didn’t feel out of my depth.”

Drazba started out as a history major and, because of her high school AP classes, took upper-level courses her freshman year.

“I was told my thinking was too linear and I had to change the way I saw events and history, which did not sit well with me,” she says. “In my opinion, thinking differently would lead to different conclusions and perspectives.”

At the same time, Drazba was taking a geology class with Senior Instructor and Lab Coordinator Elizabeth Rhodes ’99 (M.S. in environmental studies), and she knew where she really belonged.

“Elizabeth Rhodes was the most welcoming teacher, and geology was a receptive place – a home for inquisitive, out-of-place people,” says Drazba. “Both students and professors loved their work. They would come in over the weekend to work on a project simply because they loved it.”

The feeling was mutual. “As a professor, we are always looking for students who are engaged, and Marina stood out in my intro class,” says Rhodes. “Her zest for life is outstanding. She is so self-confident and willing to try new things. Her approach to life is all embracing.” 

It came as no surprise when Drazba came by to see about majoring in geology. Rhodes became her advisor and, to this day, Rhodes treasures the gifts Drazba gave her.   

“Marina has a real creative side,” says Rhodes. “She brought me some tumbled river rocks from Nicaragua, which she had cut in half. There were amazing fossils inside. I have a lot of rocks in my house, but these are featured on my shelf. She also gave me a linoleum block print of a cool sea pod. They are my favorite gifts a student has ever given me.”

In addition to Rhodes, Drazba formed a tight bond with Bob Nusbaum, professor emeritus of geology. Drazba and Nusbaum had a mutual passion – landslides. She collaborated with him on the remote sensing of landslides, examining satellite data to detect potential slides. She also worked with Kem Fronaberger, former geology professor and director of the Master in Environmental Studies Program, looking for Egyptian artifacts in limestone.

In the geology department, associate professors Steve Jaumé and Erin Beutel helped students with parents who were far away. 

“They would have us over for Thanksgiving,” says Drazba, whose sister, Stefanya Drazba ’08, joined her. “It was the first time I ever had a deep-fried turkey. They invited us over, even though I was Typhoid Mary – I prepared sausages for the geology professors, something I learned from my father who has Polish roots, and everyone got sick.” 

Unearthing Opportunities
Drazba took her experiences at the College back home to Nicaragua the next summer. She collaborated with a local university to create a model for the shrimp farm where her father worked that studied the influence of the nearby volcano on the estuary.

Drazba’s studies included a year in Florence, Italy, with an affiliated CofC school. While studying art history and Italian, she shared the geological details of every ruin she visited with her classmates. She also managed to learn jewelry making, honing her passion for rocks, especially gemstones. 

While unearthing her passions, Drazba also worked on discovering what left her flat. “Don’t chase what you love, chase what doesn’t necessarily excite you,” she says. “That way you can see what you really want to do.”

With that in mind, Drazba interned in environmental geology in California and realized that was not what she wanted. Being president of the Geology Club her senior year, however, was a perfect fit. “We put on a fossils and stones show to raise funds; I was the best customer.”

Fueled by all she learned, Drazba set her sights on graduate school. “Landslides are a very technical subject with lots of physics and calculus,” she says. “I applied to graduate school, but I didn’t get in.”

Fortunately, Professor Norman Levine introduced Drazba to Scott Burns at Portland State, where she applied and ultimately was accepted.

“Dr. Burns was open to me finding my own project, but I had to pay my own way,” says Drazba, who managed to receive a grant from United States Geological Survey (USGS) to create models for predicting landslides using the existing database from extreme rain events in the Portland West Hills. She also worked for the Department of Oregon Geology and Mineral Industries helping to map landslides along with putting together a statewide mapping project and a Portland Quadrangle. 

“While learning about soil structures is really cool, my master’s was very technical and routine,” says Drazba. “I recognized that doing the same thing over and over would quickly become boring; I knew I wanted to make my work more social.” 

Armed with a master of engineering geology, Drazba went to work in the oil and gas industry. After intensive training, she handled the measurement and logging on offshore oil rigs. Her stints were mostly on the Gulf Shore, but she also spent some time in Equatorial Guinea
and Angola. 

When her company offered employee buyouts in 2016, Drazba raised her hand. “It was hard to leave because of the golden handcuffs. I don’t think I would have left on my own, even though I wanted to go back to school and was actively saving for it.”

Still determined to play a more social role in her career, Drazba decided to get her doctorate in communications and disaster risk reduction. First, however, she took a five-month break to travel from Cairo to Cape Town by overland truck. Throughout the trip, her passion for rocks remained at the forefront. 

“No one likes going on a hike with a geologist,” she says. “All we do is look at rocks. From Cairo to Cape Town, everyone was looking at the Great Rift Valley, and I was looking at the volcanic rocks. I see landslides everywhere.”

Photo by J. Kat Photo, Inc./Portrait of Marina Drazba in San Diego, California.

‘Sitting on a Time Bomb’
Landslides continued to be front and center when Drazba arrived at the University of Auckland in New Zealand as a doctoral candidate in 2017. She had reached out to numerous universities, but the University of Auckland was the only one that allowed her to combine her two passions: disaster risk management and making technical details relatable. On top of that, it was affordable.

Drazba attended a master class where Regan Potangaroa, a professor of architectural science at the University of Wellington School of Architecture, lectured about his emergency management work as a structural engineer with the UNHCR.

“Professor Potangaroa talked about various disasters,” says Drazba. “When I asked about landslides, he scoffed and said he didn’t think that would happen – definitely not primary given all the other disasters like earthquakes, floods and hurricanes that regularly take place.”

Fast forward a few months. Potangaroa received an assignment to help build shelters for the 1.1 million Rohingya at the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp. Upon arrival, he discovered the camp suffered from massive landslides. 

“In refugee situations, good land is not available,” explains Potangaroa. “At Cox’s Bazar, the land was flood prone and there was a layer of clay over a sandy core. To build the shelters, we terraced into the clay and tore off all the vegetation. Basically, we did the two worst things we could do and made the land more vulnerable. We were sitting on a time bomb.”

Remembering his conversation with Drazba, Potangaroa reached out and asked if she wanted to help out and write her dissertation on the problems at Cox’s Bazar. Drazba jumped at the opportunity, but first she had to get on the RedR Australia roster, which manages prequalified people to work on UN projects. She went through two weeks of intensive training and extensive interviews with RedR to determine her mental resilience. Once cleared to join UNHCR, Drazba traveled to Cox’s Bazar and immediately set about getting the lay of the land. She realized that to prevent landslides, she would need to get buy-in from
the refugees. 

For the Rohingya, not only did she have to figure out how to share information with a largely illiterate audience, she had to do so within a patriarchal society. Fortunately, her 10 years of experience on offshore oil rigs gave her the grit to work through any challenges. “On the rigs, I worked in operational and leadership roles,” she says. “I learned how to harness skills – when to back off, when to move forward and when to move sideways.”

To learn more about the community, Drazba went to the community outreach office and asked about collaborating.

“Marina accompanied me on focus group discussions for her Ph.D. dissertation,” says Vipawan Pongtranggoon, a protection officer (community based) with UNHCR. “She’s very interested in bridging the gap between the technical unit and the community-based protection unit. We work with COMS [community outreach members] – refugees who are willing and able to dedicate time to serve their community. They reach out to people who otherwise
would not seek out help on their own through home visits, where they conduct interviews and identify and link vulnerable and high-risk community members to services and assistance.”

On the way back from the focus group, Drazba and Pongtranggoon talked about how the Rohingya don’t have a written language and about adjusting presentations to have more visual representation. 

“I could see Marina’s brain started to fire,” says Pongtranggoon. “I could almost see light coming out of her head. Marina is exceptional because she can take ideas and turn them into something concrete.”

A few days later, Drazba arrived at the community outreach office with a storyboard that shared how to be aware of areas that are prone to landslides and what precautions to take. 

“Given the cultural boundaries, I knew that defined people could not be included as that would be construed as idolatry, so I turned to ‘The Mountain That Walks’ story that I learned in Nicaragua,” she says.

The Art of Storytelling
“When addressing risk, you have to know your audience,” says Drazba. “You have to incorporate what the native population and the displaced population know into how you share your information. You need to be a trusted source and know the do’s and don’ts. What are the firm lines that can’t be crossed? How do you share information in a way that makes people aware of the situation without inciting fear? You must show good will, and you need to know that you come in with biases.”

Her story told how the mountain can be dynamic, changing and life-threatening, but did it resonate with the Rohingya? She and Pongtranggoon conducted a test run with the COMS. After a short briefing, Drazba asked the COMS to try sharing the story. Based on her observations, Drazba made modifications and decided to create a picture book, titled The Mountain That Walks, with the storyline on the back of the visual in three languages (English, Bangla and Burmese) as a reference for the storyteller.

“In terms of impact, we could see that when the COMS use the book in the field, they have more participation because the Rohingya love stories with visuals. With the book, the COMS can do household visits without the need to ‘bribe’ because they bring entertainment,” says Pongtranggoon, referring to the snacks people typically bring to entice people to listen to what they have to say.

To gain the greatest exposure and get around the gender divide, Drazba came up with “story time” for children and mothers. By doing so, she could reach women, who would normally be off limits.

“The goal of the book was to simplify highly technical information in a way that resonated with the Rohingya and the Government of Bangladesh,” says Drazba. “Some children put on a play based on The Mountain That Walks. When children can explain the images they see, I know I’ve done my job.”

With the success of The Mountain That Walks, Drazba went on to produce two more books: The Curious Wind
about cyclones and The River That Grows about flooding. Like The Mountain That Walks, the stories portray disasters in a friendly way that talks about how to coexist and mitigate risk. 

“These people aren’t new to disasters,” says Pongtranggoon. “These stories aren’t a magic bullet, but they will arm them with the basics on what they need to do. It’s all about working on people’s resilience.”

Of course, Drazba decided to take things up a notch. On another focus group trip, she and Pongtranggoon talked about board games and how they both hate to lose, which led to the creation of a board game about natural disasters. Drazba enlisted a student majoring in graphic design to create the board as a school project.

“The game is a bit like Chutes and Ladders,” explains Drazba. “It’s an obstacle game with cards that are visual and require the players to explain what they see. We made it the size of a dining table so many people could play.”

“Usually learning sessions are one way – at best, you can have a dialogue,” says Pongtranggoon. “The board game changed that by letting people figure out things on their own. People interpret the cards differently, which encourages discussion. Now COMS can facilitate a session that’s different from anything else. It was the most brilliant thing I ever witnessed. The game was so popular that people would come to watch others play.” 

“Preventative work within disaster risk reduction will save a lot of money and lives further down the line,” says Drazba. “What we created works here because of the Rohingya’s strong sense of community and their love of sharing stories. It won’t necessarily work at other locations. It’s not a one-fix solution. We’ll have to build new ways of messaging based on the situation and the people.”

With the experiences at Cox’s Bazar under her belt, Drazba is completing her doctorate with Professor Potangaroa and Professor Liam Wotherspoon at the University of Auckland as her thesis advisors and is ready for whatever challenges UNHCR presents. 

“UNHCR gave me the opportunity to marry geology and a cultural component,” says Drazba. “It’s a really hard space to navigate, but I love what I do. I take technically complicated information and translate it for the general population. Basically, I’m a communication bridge.”