Core Strength


Disaster doctor knows what it takes to endure.

At 2:04 p.m. EST on October 17, 1989, the “World Series Earthquake” struck the San Francisco Bay Area. As the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants went through their warm-ups, viewers at home watched in amazement as the Loma Prieta became the first major earthquake in the United States to have its initial jolt broadcast live on television.

Heavy equipment cranes and backhoes probe and lift debris from the crushed Interstate 880 freeway in Oakland, Ca. on Friday, Oct. 20, 1989. The Bay area was hit with a 7.1 earthquake on Tuesday, causing the two-level freeway to collapse. Over 250 persons were killed. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Heavy equipment cranes and backhoes probe and lift debris from the crushed Interstate 880 freeway in Oakland, Ca. on Friday, Oct. 20, 1989. The Bay area was hit with a 7.1 earthquake on Tuesday, causing the two-level freeway to collapse. Over 250 persons were killed. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

While instrumentation recorded the tremors, word went out among the civil engineering and geologic communities that a major event had taken place. Among those packing their bags was James R. Martin II, then a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech, now the chair of Clemson’s Glenn Department of Civil Engineering. This was to be his first major disaster assessment in the field, and he would be working with his doctoral adviser, Wayne Clough, an internationally known earthquake engineer who would eventually serve as president of Georgia Tech and secretary of the Smithsonian. As he traveled west, Martin had an opportunity to reflect on the winding road that had brought him to this particular place and time.

A firm foundation

As a kid growing up in Union, South Carolina, Martin’s family vacationed widely up and down the East Coast, traveling on the interstate system that took them south to Florida, north to New York and as far west as Ohio, visiting family and friends along the way. Martin was impressed with the vast ribbon of concrete and steel, with its smooth wide lanes and massive bridges. As impressive as the highway was, what impacted him just as much were the gigantic construction projects going on along the edge of the interstate, just outside the car windows. There were factories, shopping centers, dams and power plants — intricate and complex structures that fired Martin’s young imagination. “It was my mom who taught me to be present in the world,” Martin says. “She always said, ‘Pay attention to what’s going on around you; be a student of life.’ If I returned from a school field trip and couldn’t describe everything I’d seen that day in minute detail, she’d be very disappointed.”

His parents also taught (and illustrated by personal example) that a contributing citizen of the world had to move beyond observing to becoming involved. His father worked for the phone company, but also devoted a great deal of time to public service. James R. Martin Sr. was the first African-American elected to public office in Union County. He served 17 years on the Union County Council and the Catawba Regional Planning Council, and he worked closely with Sen. Strom Thurmond for many years to advance development of rural communities. His mother, Dora T. Martin, enjoyed a 38-year tenure as an educator and served 23 years on the Union County Council. A board member of the Catawba Regional Council of Governments, she was elected state president of the South Carolina Association of Regional Councils. “I grew up in a household where it was easy to be inspired,” says Martin. “Both of my parents were living examples of how we are called to service — to try to make a positive difference in people’s lives.”

Dora and James Martin, 1999

Dora and James Martin, 1999

It isn’t surprising, then, to know that it was the impact on people that Martin noticed during his first field experience following the Loma Prieta earthquake. “The human element is really first and foremost,” he observes. “An earthquake or flood is a human tragedy first before it is a case history.”

Looking beyond the build

Field reconnaissance must be performed early in the aftermath of a natural disaster before cleanup efforts remove vital evidence. Researchers like Martin are typically concerned with the performance of civil infrastructure such as bridges, buildings, dams, ports and power plants. And the empirical field evidence reveals what worked and what did not.

Over time, Martin developed the belief that civil engineering has to embrace an understanding of social policy, in addition to mastering infrastructure’s technical requirements. He and his colleagues realized the need for a more multidisciplinary approach, which was the foundation for establishing the Disaster Risk Management Institute at Virginia Tech. This National Science Foundation-funded effort has helped establish an education and research environment that includes social and economic perspectives in investigating disaster risk resilience.

James Martin in Japan

James Martin in Japan

Martin represents a new maturity in terms of the discipline itself. “Traditionally, civil engineering has been involved with just the technical aspects of a project, but if you want to be part of the big decisions, you have to go beyond that,” he says. “When we talk about sustainable infrastructure, civil engineering has to be part of the big decisions — where a bridge is going to be built, how it’s going to be financed and who will be served by it. Sustainable infrastructure goes beyond just the engineering parameters that govern the design.”

A personal quake

In 2000, tremors of a completely different sort rocked Martin’s world. He noticed numbness in his legs after a workout. Over the course of the next few days, the numbness got progressively worse, and in two weeks he had lost about 50 percent of the movement and feeling in his legs. He began to notice problems with his vision. His reasoning and short-term memory began to falter. After exhaustive testing, he was officially diagnosed in late February 2000 with multiple sclerosis (MS). His condition worsened, and he required care for everyday living until he began to slowly regain the use of his hands. Eighteen months after the initial attack, he was able to hold a pen and scribble his name. It took another four years to really be able to write legibly and 10 years to regain fine motor skills for things like buttoning a shirt — a task that still can be a challenge.

MS can be debilitating, and it was clear to Martin early on that the disease has to be fought from every angle — physically, mentally and spiritually. Martin was committed to fighting the disease with all he had. He learned about diet and exercise, and explored Eastern approaches to healing. “Healing is about hard work — it’s tremendously hard,” he says. “But the important thing I’ve discovered is that if you really make up your mind to do something, I mean REALLY make up your mind to do something, you can do it.” In the 13 years since he was diagnosed, he has never missed a single day of a planned workout. Even if he gets home at 3:00 a.m. and has been up for 48 hours, he works out. There are no exceptions, ever.

His message of determined resolve is one that he has shared as a motivational speaker and one he wants to introduce to an even broader audience. Martin has completed two manuscripts. It’s Raining details how he dealt with the spiritual and emotional aspects of struggling with a disability. In Buying Time, he outlines the steps one must take to extend the quality of real life. His ultimate goal is to establish a foundation to help people deal with disabilities. “Most of us at some point are going to have some difficult bridge to cross, and we are going to be tested,” he says. “At that point, you have to reach down inside and bring out that inner strength you need to cross that bridge. And we can’t bring out what we didn’t put in, so we need to constantly nurture the really important things.”

Martin has been drawing on his inner strength since the day he enrolled in the Citadel for his undergraduate degree. Being from Union always meant that Clemson was a choice for college, but he felt that the Citadel experience would present opportunities for growth, especially in terms of leadership. “Beyond the academics, I knew that the environment there, with its lack of diversity at the time, would be a little uncomfortable, but I’ve always felt that you have to be a little uncomfortable to grow, and if you are committed to growth you don’t care about going into places where you’re uncomfortable.” At the time of his graduation, Martin was one of a handful of African-Americans in the class, and he was one of the first African-American engineering graduates at the Citadel. Diversity is important to Martin and as the first African-American department chair in the College of Engineering and Science, he sees his appointment as a milestone for the college and University.

“My welcome has been extremely warm and inviting, which I think illustrates Clemson’s commitment to a diverse faculty and staff, and by extension, a diverse student body,” he says. “It’s forward movement, and whether you are talking about personal challenges or academic advancement, what you look for is forward movement.”

Forward movement

Martin is working to achieve forward movement in Clemson’s Glenn Department of Civil Engineering as well. “We have a very good department,” he says. “And I am inviting faculty, students, staff and alumni to join me in an effort to establish a culture of greatness.” Martin points out that Clemson’s location along the I-85 corridor, coupled with its academic computing power, offers unique opportunities. “We live in the fastest growing area of the country right now,” he observes. “And Clemson’s cyber-infrastructure gives us the chance to put together big data for civil systems. We can make a positive global impact with the information and research we can develop.”

Had he stayed at Virginia Tech, the current academic year would have provided some sabbatical time for Martin, which he would have used to polish his manuscripts and refine his research. The opportunity here, though, was something he couldn’t pass up. Having an endowed department is one thing that attracted him to Clemson. Virginia Tech’s civil engineering department received an endowment when he was there, and it made a tremendous difference in what could be accomplished.

“Clemson’s civil engineering alumni are a passionate group,” he states. “From the first time I set foot on campus, I just had the feeling that this is where I am supposed to be, and they’ve reinforced that belief over and over. We have a chance to build something really solid, really special here. And we will.”

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