Architect and disaster recovery expert Mary Comerio profiled in latest EERI’s oral history

The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) is excited to release the 27th volume of Connections: The EERI Oral History Series, featuring Mary Comerio (M.EERI,1988), an internationally recognized expert on disaster recovery. 

A trailblazer in the merging of architecture and disaster resilience, Comerio is the first woman to be featured in EERI’s oral history collection. The volume is available free of charge in PDF format here. This ongoing series publishes interviews with prominent figures in the fields associated with earthquake engineering and earthquake resilience to preserve the rich history of those who have shaped seismic design theory and practice. 

“One of Mary’s lasting legacies is her passion for the historically underserved and her willingness to speak up on their behalf,” said Lucy Arendt (M.EERI,2008), interviewer of this volume and a professor of business administration at St. Norbert College. “She used her voice and expertise to make buildings in Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco safer for people who needed an advocate. Mary once engaged Fidel Castro – yes, that Fidel – in a debate about the need to provide housing that served all kinds of families. She won the debate.”

In 1978, Comerio joined the faculty in the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley and served as chair of the Department from 2006-2009. She holds Master’s degrees in Architecture and Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis. As an architect, Comerio has designed numerous public and private facilities, including market-rate and affordable housing. Her research focuses on the costs and benefits of seismic rehabilitation (particularly housing), post-disaster recovery and reconstruction, and loss modeling. She is the author of Disaster Hits Home: New Policy for Urban Housing Recovery. 

Comerio led the Building Systems Research in the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, during the ten years when PEER was one of three NSF-funded national earthquake centers. She also served as co-principal investigator on one of the National Science Foundation’s Grand Challenge projects focused on the mitigation of collapse risk in nonductile concrete buildings. She serves on the Governing Board of the QuakeCoRE Center for Earthquake Resilience in New Zealand and continues to consult internationally on disaster recovery and resilience planning.

Comerio also brings a long and rich history of service and leadership to EERI. She served as president of EERI, as a member on its Board of Directors, Honors Committee, and Learning from Earthquakes (LFE) committee, and as a Distinguished Lecturer. She was also a member of the EERI reconnaissance teams to Umbria and L’Aquila and leader of the teams to Christchurch. In 2019, EERI honored Comerio with one of its highest distinctions — an honorary membership to the Institute. 

“Over the course of her career, Mary has made a material difference in the lives of thousands of people – as the president of EERI, LFE reconnaissance leader, professor, scholar, mentor, advocate, community member, wife, and mother,” said Arendt. “She seamlessly walks among all these roles. Mary is the kind of hands-on leader we all wish we could be – she’s brilliant, caring, funny, determined, incisive, energetic, pragmatic, generous, hard-working, and always other-focused.”

“As an architect working in the realm of earthquake engineering research, I have always tried to bridge the gap between our technical understanding of earthquake (and other disaster) impacts on the built environment, and the social and economic consequences of disaster losses,” said Comerio. “Architecture is a field in which the diverse understanding of many building issues can be brought together in a creative way.”

The full Connections: The EERI Oral History Series (volumes 1–27) is available free of charge in PDF format on the EERI website. Click here to download Mary Comerio’s volume. To read more about the series and access all its volumes, click here.