Category: News

Flood Apex Program increases flood resilience through emerging tech

The Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) is partnering with the Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate (DHS S&T) on a program that aims to save lives, reduce property loss and enhance resilience to disruptive flood events.

DHS S&T created the Flood Apex Program in 2014 to bring new and emerging technologies together to increase communities’ resilience to flood events and to provide predictive analytic tools for floods. The goals of the program, which is managed by the First Responders Group of DHS S&T,  are to reduce fatalities and property losses from future flood events, increase community resilience to disruptions caused by flooding and develop better investment strategies to prepare for, respond to, recover from and mitigate against flood hazards.

The projects

The CRC Flood  Apex project team is led by CRC Lead Principal Investigator Dr. Rick Luettich, CRC Executive Director Tom Richardson and CRC Director Dr. Gavin Smith.

The team provides support to the program in several ways:

    • They manage a Research Review Board, chaired by Dr. Sandra Knight of WaterWonks, LLC, which serves as an expert panel and identifies transition pathways for Flood Apex end-products to help ensure they are useable by their intended recipients. The 15-member Board include six members from academia and nine members representing various federal, state and local agencies, plus the private sector.
    • They managed a landscape survey by the RAND Corporation of flood-related decision support tools already in existence.  The survey determined existing resiliency measures and indicators, the degree to which resilience science can be translated into risk reduction methods, the existing decision support systems and other policy management choices that can be made with existing information.
    • Together with the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI), they co-hosted a Flood Analytics Colloquium in Nov. 2017, convening a multi-disciplinary group of technical specialists and end-users to reimagine flood analytics. The event brought together thought leaders from many disciplines to challenge existing flood data management and analytics by introducing innovative and disruptive technologies that could change the path of flood impact and predictive analytics.
    • Managing a study by AECOM to improve understanding of state- and local-level mitigation decisions, activities and investments that target enhancement of community resiliency, and which reduce flood fatalities and losses. This is being done through analysis of the post-Hurricane Floyd statewide North Carolina efforts in 1999 (the state’s most costly disaster to date) against the impacts and consequences of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. This also will be one element of the CRC-led Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative.

CRC project expands emergency preparedness intervention program to high school students

A new project between the University of Rhode Island (URI) – with the URI Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant as partners – and Westerly High School of Westerly, R.I., is focused on encouraging students – and by extension, their families and school community – to assess how well prepared they are for weather emergencies, such as hurricanes, or the longer-term change that comes from sea level rise.

This month, ninth- and 10th-graders at Westerly High School will make use of a new online program so they can assess their readiness for themselves. The information will help URI researchers learn more about behavior change in terms of emergency preparedness and better gauge which tools best support this change.

Dr. James Prochaska
Dr. James Prochaska

“Students Creating Change: Reducing Our Risk from Natural Disaster,” is a voluntary project and engages students who receive parental or guardian permission. Students taking part in the program receive information about preparedness and readiness activities that can be applied by a family and carried out at home with little or no cost.

The project team is led by Dr. James Prochaska as an extension of his work for the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence, which focuses on risk communication to motivate individual actions. URI CRC Coastal Manager and Sea Grant Extension Agent Pam Rubinoff, who is also part of the DHS work, is helping lead the outreach effort.

“In the past we have helped high school students reduce health risks, such as inadequate exercise and unhealthy eating,” said Dr. Prochaska, a URI psychology researcher and director of the university’s Cancer Prevention Research Center. “Now we are researching how such students can help their families reduce their risks by becoming better prepared for severe storms.”

Pam Rubinoff
Pam Rubinoff

“In light of so much severe weather across the country and in Rhode Island, Westerly school administrators, with unanimous support from our school committee, view this partnership with the University of Rhode Island as an excellent opportunity to further strengthen our commitment to enhancing both our students’ and their families’ health and wellbeing,” Westerly High School Principal Todd Grimes said. “This educational collaboration can benefit all students who participate since it addresses health standards and serves to enhance our health curriculum and our coastal community.”

The project is funded by the Rhode Island Research Alliance and is part of a larger URI research effort to engage in the DHS initiative to understand and gather the best approaches and tools for building emergency preparedness in coastal communities nationwide.

“Protecting ourselves from storms and sea level rise clearly starts at home, at school, and within the foundations of community,” Rubinoff said. “It’s thrilling to bring the science and research to bear in these truly useful, practical activities.”

ADCIRC Week expands tracks to accommodate wide range of applications

2017 ADCIRC Users Group Meeting attendees
2017 ADCIRC Users Group Meeting attendees

Coastal modelers and decision-makers will gather this spring to teach, learn, discuss, plan and build capacity for a tool that  provides decision support for hazards like storm inundation during tropical and extratropical cyclones.

ADCIRC Week, a gathering of professionals, academics, students and officials, will be held April 9-13, 2018, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Center for Weather and Climate Prediction in College Park, Md. The event includes two major sections – the ADCIRC Boot Camp training event from April 9-11 and the ADCIRC Users Meeting, held from April 12-13.

Pre-registration is currently available and is required for all ADCIRC Week events.

The Boot Camp includes a high-level ADCIRC for Decision Makers panel discussion on Wednesday, April 11, for state and federal government stakeholders, including FEMA and the U.S. Coast Guard. It is a three-day training event overall and is organized by Dr. Jason Fleming of Seahorse Coastal Consulting, a co-PI on a Coastal Resilience Center (CRC) project. The Boot Camp has developed a reputation for intensity and quality and will continue its year-over-year growth in 2018 with an expansion from two to four simultaneous tracks. This year’s site hosts are NOAA’s Coastal Survey Development Lab and National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

A mesh of the North Carolina and Virginia region is shown.
A mesh of the North Carolina and Virginia region is shown.

The 2018 ADCIRC Users Group Meeting gives coastal modellers and ADCIRC developers the chance to show off the latest new features and engage in interactive discussions to advance the state of the art in ADCIRC modelling.

ADCIRC, short for the Advanced CIRCulation model, combines information on tides, river flows, wind, atmospheric pressure and surface waves to predict the response of the coastal ocean, including when, where and to what extent storm surge and flooding will impact a coastal community, often with greater precision than other available models. Results are made publicly available on two Coastal Emergency Risks Assessment (CERA) websites: and

Several Coastal Resilience Center researchers involved in ongoing projects are continuing to improve ADCIRC, by adding new model inputs, such as precipitation, and decreasing the computer power needed to run simulations.

Boot Camp

During the Boot Camp, participants will choose between four separate tracks:

  • ADCIRC 101: For Complete Newcomers to Coastal Model Development with ADCIRC
  • ADCIRC 201: For Intermediate ADCIRC Analysts
  • ADCIRC 301: For Experienced ADCIRC Analysts
  • ADCIRC Decision Support: For Decision Makers Who Use ADCIRC Results. This track will include discussion risk assessment as a tool for decision-making; effective risk communication techniques; high-level decision-support experiences panel discussion; and a 2018 CERA site preview.

New additions to the Bootcamp include a series of add-on dinnertime sessions called ADCIRC After Dark. These sessions, split into Building ADCIRC and ADCIRC Visualization Tools, are designed to maximize the value of participants’ time spent at the Boot Camp and address topics that are not covered in any other session. Dinner is included in the ticket prices for these add-ons.

Users Group Meeting

This two-day event is the place to see the latest and greatest ADCIRC features and applications, and to discuss gaps and opportunities with challenging new ADCIRC use cases. The Users Group Meeting will involve four tracks:

  • Track 1: GitHub Tutorial, ADCIRC Testing with CircleCI
  • Track 2: ADCIRC GIS Integration Roadmap, ADCIRC Python Coordination Summit
  • Track 3: Oceanmesh2D: Making and Processing ADCIRC Meshes with Matlab
  • Track 4: Career Fair

This year, the Meeting will include a poster reception on the evening of April 11. Another new element for the 2018 Meeting is the addition of an ADCIRC Bonus Round on April 13, after the end of the conventional Meeting presentations. These sessions consist of workshops and tutorials to coalesce like-minded subgroups within the ADCIRC Community.

Attendees of the 2017 ADCIRC Boot Camp learn the basics of the modeling system during ADCIRC Week. Photo by Jason Fleming.
Attendees of the 2017 ADCIRC Boot Camp learn the basics of the modeling system during ADCIRC Week. Photo by Jason Fleming.

Similar to last year’s event, the ADCIRC Career Fair will be held during the Bonus Round on April 13. Candidates registering for the ADCIRC Career Fair will be highlighted in the Meeting program and on social media and are encouraged to dress professionally and carry an ample supply of business cards, hardcopy resumes and statements of interest. Potential employers, headhunters, and recruiting faculty are encouraged to register, and will be assigned a single dedicated 20-minute time slot for meeting the candidates.

The ADCIRC Community Awards will return for the 2018 ADCIRC Users Group Meeting to recognize voluntary individual contributions to the ADCIRC Community. Nominations for ADCIRC Community Man of the Year and ADCIRC Community Woman of the Year will be accepted during the registration process.

Registration, deadlines and requirements

International participants in ADCIRC Week who are required to obtain a visa to travel to the United States are strongly encouraged to apply for the visa as early as possible. Visit the U.S. State Department website to get details on visa requirements. A supporting letter for visa applications will be provided to international workshop participants upon request.

Pre-registration is required for all attendees, and registration by Feb. 28, 2018, is required to secure a 20-minute presentation time slot at the Meeting or for a poster position at the Poster Reception on Wednesday evening.

For more information, visit

Hypothetical hurricanes: Modeling coastal hazards in Rhode Island

This year’s hurricane season has been one of the most active on record, with devastating impacts on coastal communities, including eastern Texas, both coasts of Florida and all of Puerto Rico. While hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria slammed the Gulf and the Caribbean, communities further north are preparing for their own high-impact storm: a hypothetical “Hurricane Rhody.”

Dr. Isaac Ginis
Dr. Isaac Ginis

Researchers at the University of Rhode Island (URI) are working to improve the safety and preparedness of Northeastern coastal communities by using model hurricane simulations. These simulations have served as a tool for emergency managers during state-level emergency planning exercises.

Dr. Isaac Ginis has developed a computer model for assessing the impact of potential hurricanes in the Northeast as part of a project with the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC). “Modeling the combined coastal and inland hazards from high-impact hypothetical hurricanes” includes the development of an advanced, multi-modal ensemble system used for realistic computer simulations of hurricane hazards and impacts.

Dr. Ginis serves as the project’s principal investigator, and collaborates on the model with URI Drs. Chris Kincaid, Tetsu Hara, Lewis Rothstein and David Ullman. Other research partners include Florida State University professor Dr. Wenrui Huang; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Environmental Modeling Center, Northeast River Forecast Center and the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Boston.

“The primary goal of our project is to assess the impact of very large, extreme hurricane events using the most advanced numerical models,” Dr. Ginis said. “We’re going to use multiple scenarios based on real storms in the past, but also hypothetical scenarios that have never happened but could happen.”

The model Dr. Ginis and his collaborators combine data from hurricanes that have had severe impacts on Rhode Island in the past with hypothetical worst-case scenarios to simulate the outcomes of potential storms. Hurricane Rhody is a hypothetical storm that would directly affect Rhode Island with hazards such as winds of more than 130 miles per hour and significant coastal and inland flooding.

“One of the key elements of our approach is to combine the impact of coastal flooding due to storm surge and inland flooding due to rainfall simultaneously, which hasn’t been done before,” Dr.Ginis said.

The physical models apply 3-D visualizations to display the impact of these hazards on critical infrastructure, evacuations and critical operating systems like transportation and utilities. With a recent grant from the Microsoft Azure Research Award, Ginis and his team will be able to utilize cloud computing to improve their models and develop more visualization products for emergency managers.

Pam Rubinoff, right, and Dr. Austin Becker, second from right, instruct participants in a June training on preparation for "Hurricane Rhody." Photo via the University of Rhode Island.
Pam Rubinoff, right, and Dr. Austin Becker, second from right, instruct participants in a June training on preparation for “Hurricane Rhody.” Photo via the University of Rhode Island.

“This project will allow federal, state and local agencies to better understand the consequences of coastal and inland hazards associated with extreme high-impact hurricanes and to better prepare coastal communities for future risks,” Dr. Ginis said.

Model predictions have already helped emergency managers, first responders and other decision-makers in planning for Hurricane Rhody, while also providing new insights into the effects sea-level rise will have on future scenarios.

Last June, emergency managers partnered with the URI researchers in a four-day statewide preparedness exercise using the Hurricane Rhody simulations. The Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) led the trainings, which were attended by more than 100 emergency managers from Rhode Island municipalities, state agencies, non-profit organizations and FEMA Region 1 and focused on response to hurricane scenarios.

RIEMA is considering use of the presented materials for further trainings and exercises to update state materials to current threat standards.

“The information and modeling provided by URI will be used within RIEMA-sponsored trainings and exercises to update the scientific data and modeling used,” Stephen Conard, RIEMA Training & Exercise Specialist, said.

Dr. Ginis said further outreach is planned.

“We plan to convene a statewide ‘Hurricane Rhody Workshop’ to bring together planners and decision-makers from all levels so they could grapple collectively with the response for a catastrophic event and start the process of reviewing and reconciling their existing emergency plans,” he said.

The project has also helped improving hurricane forecasts through collaboration with NOAA scientists. In 2016, Ginis’ team made contributions to the National Weather Service’s hurricane prediction models and other models to help track storms in the Northern Hemisphere. Ginis has received a Certificate of Appreciation from NOAA for his contributions.

This project will allow federal, state and local agencies to better understand the consequences of coastal and inland hazards associated with extreme high-impact hurricanes and to better prepare coastal communities for future risks

Dr. Ginis says the next step in his research is to improve predictions on the strength and impact of hurricanes. The 2017 hurricane season has highlighted the remaining challenges in forecasting extreme hurricane intensity and rainfall, he said, and collected data will be used to further advance operational hurricane prediction models.

“This is still one of the most challenging problems we are facing in terms of hurricane prediction,” he said. “We’ve made huge progress in forecasting the hurricane track, but still there are significant challenges to predict how strong a hurricane is going to be.”

Ginis says there are many factors that can influence a hurricane’s intensity, which is part of the reason those predictions are so hard to make.

“That is still a very difficult question to answer,” he said. “We are making progress.”

Center credited in report from National Academies

Dr. James Opaluch's project, which includes visualizations of projected property impacts from storms, was among the CRC projects cited by the National Academies report.
Dr. James Opaluch’s project, which includes visualizations of projected property impacts from storms, was among the CRC projects cited by the National Academies report.

The ability to observe and predict severe weather events and other disasters has improved markedly over recent decades, yet this progress does not always translate into similar advances in the systems used in such circumstances to protect lives, according to a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).

The report proposes steps to improve public safety and resilience in the face of extreme weather and other disasters. It includes a more cohesive alert and warning system that integrates public and private communications mechanisms and adopts new technologies quickly is needed to deliver critical information during emergency situations. At the same time, better understanding of social and behavioral factors would improve the ways we communicate about hazards, inform response decisions such as evacuations, develop more resilient urban infrastructure, and take other steps to improve weather readiness.

The Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC), based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is among four Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate Centers of Excellence cited in the report. Others are the National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE), National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute (CIRI).

Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences Within the Weather Enterprise,” which cites the CRC emphasizes the need for government agencies, industry, and academic institutions involved in the weather enterprise to work together to more actively engage social and behavioral scientists, in order to make greater progress in protecting life and enhancing prosperity. While efforts to improve physical weather prediction should continue, the report says, realizing the greatest return on investment from such efforts requires understanding how people’s contexts, experiences, knowledge, perceptions, and attitudes shape their responses to weather risks.

The report includes references to five CRC projects relevant to concerns raised in the publication:

The report can be downloaded at the link above or at

Weather forecasts and warnings are being made with greater accuracy, geographic specificity and lead time, which allow people and communities to take appropriate protective measures. Yet, as recent hazardous weather events have illustrated, social and behavioral factors — including people’s contexts, experiences, knowledge, perceptions, and attitudes — shape responses to weather risks, says “Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences Within the Weather Enterprise.”

The report notes that as efforts to advance meteorological research continue, it is essential for government agencies, industry and academic institutions, all part of the weather enterprise, to integrate social and behavioral sciences into their work. This report suggests strategies to better engage researchers and practitioners from multiple social science fields to advance those fields, to more effectively apply relevant research findings, and to foster more cooperation on this endeavor among public, private and academic sectors.

The report advises that a better understanding of social and behavioral aspects of weather readiness will help not only to design more effective forecasts and warnings but also to reduce vulnerability and mitigate risks of hazardous weather well before an event strikes and to better support emergency management and response efforts.

The report includes a special focus on social science research related to road safety, given that road weather hazards are by far the largest cause of weather-related deaths and injuries in the United States. An estimated 445,000 people are injured and 6,000 killed annually due to weather-related vehicle accidents. Understanding why people choose to drive during hazardous weather can help in developing better strategies to discourage risky behavior. Better understanding how drivers get weather-related information can help better inform people who encounter dangerous conditions such as icy roads or low visibility while already in transit.

Some examples of critical research needs highlighted in this report include: understanding how forecasters, broadcast media, emergency and transportation managers, and private weather companies interact and create and disseminate information; understanding how to better reach and inform populations that are particularly vulnerable to hazardous weather; and understanding how new communication technologies affect message design and are changing people’s weather information access, interpretations, preparedness and response.

Princeville residents guide plan for future of town

Students and faculty from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill North Carolina State University worked with residents on designs for a potential expansion of the town in August 2017.
Students and faculty from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill North Carolina State University worked with residents on designs for a potential expansion of the town in August 2017. Photo by Adam Walters.

Loria Martin was lucky this last time. Her home in Southern Terrace, a Princeville, N.C. neighborhood, was spared the flooding that impacted so much of eastern North Carolina when Hurricane Matthew hit the state in early October 2016. She has been supporting family members but is thankful damage to her home was limited to a temporary loss of electricity.

When Hurricane Floyd hit the area 17 years earlier, she wasn’t as lucky.

“This time, I didn’t get hit, but in ’99 I lost almost everything,” Martin said.

Martin was among several hundred Princeville residents who attended a multi-day Community Design Workshop, held Aug. 25-29 in neighboring Tarboro, to design a plan for a more flood-resilient future. The event was co-sponsored by the town of Princeville, Edgecombe County, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s (UNC-CH) Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC), North Carolina State University (NCSU) College of Design, North Carolina Emergency Management and the (N.C.) Governor’s Recovery Office.

This five-day workshop (see photos) brought together teams of land use planners, engineers, architects and landscape architects to collaborate with local, state and federal officials to develop three scenarios for a new 52-acre tract of land that the state intends to buy. The parcel will include houses, businesses, infrastructure, public facilities and community open space in ways that ensure that the new space connects physically, socially, environmentally and economically to historic portions of town. Located outside of the floodplain, the new space would make the town more resilient to future flooding.

The event was a unique collaboration between UNC-CH and NCSU. Faculty and students from the Department of City Regional Planning at UNC-CH, led by CRC Director Dr. Gavin Smith, joined forces with faculty and students from the NCSU College of Design for this effort.

A 52-acre site is being considered for expansion of Princeville.

The design team and resource team – which provided subject matter expertise for the design – included experts from across North Carolina and other states including Louisiana and New Jersey. Members came from organizations as varied as the North Carolina Sea Grant, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Parks Service.

The workshop was part of a larger effort, the Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative, which began earlier this year to address recovery and rebuilding issues in six communities: Princeville, Fair Bluff, Seven Springs, Windsor, Kinston and Lumberton. Since early 2017, a team led by CRC Director and UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Dr. Gavin Smith has met with leaders from the six communities to learn about the particular challenges the communities face.

A video about the event, produced in partnership with the North Carolina Rural Center, can be viewed on the Hurricane Matthew media page.

Princeville was formed in the waning days of the Civil War and incorporated in 1885. It is the first town founded by freed slaves in the United States. Though surrounded by a levee built in the 1960s, Princeville was affected by two storms less than 20 years apart that overtopped those defenses.

At the opening of the event, Princeville Mayor Pro Tem Linda Joyner said Hurricane Matthew “bullied us for 3 or 4 days” but now the town must focus on rebuilding for future generations. The town must make sure the magnitude of flooding from Hurricanes Matthew and Floyd (1999) do no happen again, Joyner said.

“Our youth will reap the benefits of what we’re doing here,” she said.

Focuses of the final designs, presented to residents on the final day of the workshop, included potential relocation of some residents, town services and businesses rebuilding some structures to make them more resilient. Designers also focused on reuse of land near the Tar River, making the area centered toward cultural and recreational purposes while avoiding structures that could flood in future storms.

Working together

Marshall Purnell, a Professor of the Practice at NCSU’s College of Design, said the effort to put all of the federal, state, local and university resources into one place to design a comprehensive plan for Princeville was impressive.

“This storm was devastating because Hurricane Floyd hit this community in 1999 – that was considered the ‘500-year event,’” Purnell said. “Seventeen years later, we got Matthew, which was not as intense as Floyd – maybe 85% of Floyd. When you have water in your house that is 6 feet as opposed to 8-9 feet, it doesn’t matter to you.”

The design team’s approach was to assess Princeville’s potential future in both the short and long term – 5 years from now and 50 years later, Purnell said. The team did not come with pre-set notions of what to design – that was instead driven by community feedback.

“Most people understand the significance of this town and they really want to remain here,” Purnell said. “Princeville has flooded many, many times since 1865. They don’t just want to pull up and leave, but they know they can’t stay and keep doing what they have been doing in the past.”

Design Team member Kofi Boone, far right, and Princeville, N.C., Mayor Pro Tem Linda Joyner, second from right, discuss plans for a proposed expansion of Princeville, N.C., with residents.

Having resources from UNC-CH and NCSU together, working to support a community, was a welcome sign, he said.

“It’s rewarding – it’s the kind of thing we as a profession, in academia, should be doing more of,” he said. “There’s no better way to learn than do it for real and for people who need it.”

Learning from history

Town Commissioner Milton Bullock said he was impressed by the attendance at the events.

“This is the closest Princeville has ever come to reconstructing itself and fulfilling the dream of our ancestors,” Bullock said. “We’re not moving Princeville, we’re expanding the footprint. At the same time, we have some issues to address, like the river.”

Eric Evans, Edgecombe County Manager, said displacement of residents from Hurricane Matthew is still a significant concern in the area. The town’s focus will be “building back better,” he said.

“The Tar River defines who you are as a town – flooding defines part of who you are,” Evans said. “It doesn’t have to define your destiny.”

State officials said that housing is still a concern in the 50 counties impacted by Hurricane Matthew – about half of those in North Carolina. Edgecombe County is among the four most affected by the storm, he said, and the focus is on making new and rebuilt structure more resilient.

Dan Brubaker of North Carolina Emergency Management said that floods from Hurricane Matthew rose more than 4 feet about the “500-year flood” gauges. A 500-year event is one that has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in any given year, whereas a 100-year event has a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year.

More documents from the event can be found on the Princeville community engagement page.

Princeville resident Martin said she liked the ideas to use flood-prone property – a proposed Freedom Hill Walking Trail –  for historical context and tourism income.

“We need recreation, something for the kids,” Martin said. “My concern was also with businesses and stores, which could bring revenue to Princeville. If we had our own stores we wouldn’t have to go so far.

“I’m feeling like the future of Princeville is looking pretty good. If everything that is said and done tonight follows through, we could be growing.”

Q&A: Dr. Camellia Okpodu, Norfolk State University

Q&A: Dr. Camellia Okpodu, Norfolk State University

Dr. Camellia Okpodu, Professor of Biology at Norfolk State University, worked on a cross-university project with Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) project lead Old Dominion University as part of the Department of Homeland (DHS) Security Science & Technology Directorate-funded Summer Research Team exchange program. Dr. Okpodu spoke about the scope of her project, her past experience with coastal hazards and her hopes for future collaboration.


Q: Can you describe your summer project’s goals and if you felt they were achieved?

A: The whole concept was having a systems approach to look at the idea of sea level rise. We are trying to understand how minorities, particularly under-served and under-represented groups in this area, respond to sea level rise and coastal flooding. From a dataset working with the University of Virginia, one of the outcomes was that minorities, particularly African-Americans, have a low affinity for the environment. That troubles me as an African-American person who grew up in coastal North Carolina on a farm – that is not my experience.

I wanted to be able to look into this, so when the DHS funding came about, I decided instead of just working by myself this was a way to work across universities in a multi-disciplinary way and to have a social scientist and students from that area who were interested in crime and social justice issues. This is how Dr. Bernadette Holmes got invited to participate.

I wanted to take this questionnaire from the University of Connecticut, not just to compare directly with what he got but to ask additional questions. For example, one of the things I thought was culturally sensitive and I wanted to look at is that most minorities – people that are my age – we don’t refer to this area as Hampton Roads. We grew up calling this Tidewater or 757. One of the questions put on our survey is how they identify their area where they live. 

Q: How would you describe the connection between the work you do in your home department and the coastal resilience realm?

A: I am primarily interested in the people of Portsmouth, Va. Portsmouth is an “economic empowerment area” – it’s about 96,000 people but they have a high rate of crime, high rate of asthma – this is primarily epidemiological data I could get. I was interested in those social indicators and finding out what we can do in the landscape from a biological aspect. Are there things we can do with dune plants for coastal restoration and mitigation? I worked on a long-term ecological project to learn about what types of plants we can add back. Rebuilding wetlands is very important for storm surge. We wanted to look into what could be done to the landscape on the basic level to help mitigate some of that. We already have some of that information, but we wanted to better identify the plants that would be most responsive and tolerant in that area. The Eastern Shore is very fertile for farmland, but as we have more flooding moving inland it’s not just us being affected. We are looking into whether there are epigenetic markers that we can see, expressed in the DNA of certain plants, that make them more flood-tolerant or stress-tolerant.

Q: Do you have any personal experiences with coastal storms? How have they impacted your work?

In 2009, I experienced Tropical Storm Ida, in November – I’ll never forget, it was Veterans Day – that hurricane came through, the remnants of a nor’easter. It was high tide, it was a perfect storm – everything happened at once. Nobody told me how the tide came in here, so I got caught in it and I saw first-hand things I could not imagine. The houses next to us were two-story houses, and the first level was underwater. I went down a street close to the university and I watched the water come in through the tunnel like in a bathtub.

We have a real problem in this area – it’s going to take all hands on deck. We need to have different vantage points – nobody is going to have all of the answers but they can benefit from having a diverse team working on that.

I was just shocked. There was no siren to warn you that there was high water; I watched a lady’s car float off in front of me. Everyone else acted as though this was a normal occurrence. These people were acting like this was everyday business. I was freaking out. I realized this was normal to them. We need to be able to have some emergency preparedness staff in place and talk to them now because they should take this seriously. There are situations where you need to leave or make it a really high priority. That made it a priority for me.

The students at NSU informed me of a lot of this because they came to me – some of them are from the areas getting flooded – and they said this happens all of the time and nobody seems to care. We started a group called Strategies foe Ecology Education Development and Sustainability (SEEDS) that has been working to address this issue. For a long time, for sustainability after I go away, that students can continue.

I grew up near Wilmington, N.C. Hurricane alley – it changed my mind. I decided when I was an adult and someone said “leave,” I would leave, unlike my grandparents – near Holden Beach – who would refuse to leave and go to a better facility. I got interested as a plant biologist and am very interested in the environmental aspects of coastal resiliency.

Q: Can you talk a little about the opportunity to collaborate with other universities in the Hampton Roads/Tidewater region? Where do you hope this partnership goes from here?

I believe collaboration is always better than competition as a scientist. There’s always room for competition around collegiate things like basketball, but because we are all interested in what happens to our country and to our world we have to be collaborative. When I moved here in 2003 from Elizabeth City State University, as a farm child we always knew you couldn’t farm tobacco and do other work without your neighbor. I grew up learning that being collaborative isn’t a bad thing.

In 2007 I had the chance to go to ODU for a fellowship and shadowed their president at the time. During my time there, I thought about how we could bridge what happened in the past – not to forget but to use it as a building block so that we could be more collective and collaborative.

Rebuilding wetlands is very important for storm surge. We wanted to look into what could be done to the landscape on the basic level to help mitigate some of that.

We have a real problem in this area – it’s going to take all hands on deck. We need to have different vantage points – nobody is going to have all of the answers but they can benefit from having a diverse team working on that.

We share common issues that drive us because we’re all in the same boat. Sea level rise affects all of us, directly and indirectly, and it’s something we should all be interested in, irrespective of gender or race. It’s a universal question that we should all put our differences aside and work collaboratively toward addressing.

Hopefully we’ll have another focus forum and then I will take that out in the field with the SSEED students, collecting feedback and taking it to Dr. Holmes and her group to analyze it. I am hoping we’ll get funding to continue the project and have gotten good support from the community. I’m thankful that the funding that we have was a primer to get us started. I envision that this will be a tipping point.

Summer research team focuses on disaster impacts on minority communities

This past summer, Old Dominion University (ODU) hosted a summer research team led by Norfolk State University (NSU) faculty Dr. Camellia Okpodu and Dr. Bernadette Holmes as part of an interdisciplinary, multi-institution collaborative summer research project.

Norfolk State University students Mikel Johnson an Raisa Barrera participated in a summer research team project at Old Dominion University.
Norfolk State University students Mikel Johnson an Raisa Barrera participated in a summer research team project at Old Dominion University.

The project was titled “A Systems Approach:  Developing Cross-Site Multiple Drivers to Understand Climate Change, Sea-level Rise and Coastal Flooding for an African American Community in Portsmouth, VA.”  Dr. Okpodu, Professor of Biology, led biological and ecological aspects of the project and Dr. Holmes, Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice, led the sociological part of the project. Read more about the research in this Q&A.

Funding for the project came from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Summer Research Team (SRT) Program. The program aims to increase and enhance the scientific leadership at Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) in research areas that support the mission and goals of DHS.

The project included five students, three from NSU and two from ODU:

  • Raisa Barrera, Graduating Senior, Biology (NSU)
  • Mikel Johnson, Rising Senior, Sociology (NSU)
  • Bryan Clayborne, Rising Senior, Sociology (NSU)
  • Donta Council, Doctoral student, Public Administration and Policy (ODU)
  • Isaiah Amos, Master’s student, Ecological Sciences (ODU)

The ODU team, most of whom are part of a DHS Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) project, included Principal Investigator Dr. Larry Atkinson, Dr. Wie Yusuf, Dr. Michelle Covi, Dr. Joshua Behr and Dr. Gail Nicula. The researchers are part of the ODU Resilience Collaborative. The ODU graduate students were sponsored by the DHS Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence.

Dr. Okpodu developed a questionnaire for the Chesapeake Bay region’s minority populations, seeking to learn more about why those populations are considered to have a lower affinity for the environment and environmental resources than the general population.

Dr. Holmes developed a framework for studying the views of African-Americans about  sea level rise and coastal flooding in the Hampton Roads area. Evidence shows that minority communities are disproportionately impacted by natural hazards, including coastal hazard threats. Both professors plan further work to explore their frameworks.

The ODU researchers provided guidance and feedback, served as a resource for engaging the local community, provided guidance on data management and supervised ODU graduate students participating in the multi-institutional project teams.

The summer research project builds on work done by other researchers at ODU on the disproportionate impact of flooding on low-resource communities, and their adaptation to flood events, Dr. Wie Yusuf of ODU said.

“The collaborative work with NSU was helpful in that it highlighted some key areas related to environmental justice and social justice, particularly as it relates to impacts of sea level rise on under-resourced communities such as the African-American community in Portsmouth,” Dr. Yusuf said.

Student participant Barrera said the new skills she gained during the summer will help her future educational and research efforts.

“This research experience afforded me a hands-on opportunity studying plant DNA and physiology and an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of how sea-level rise and coastal flooding effect the gene expression of native coastal plants,” Barrera said. “Our research provides data that will bring understanding to how Virginia native coastal plants – which protect our coastline and vulnerable communities and ecosystems – respond to sea-level rise and flash flooding induced by climate change. Millions of Americans live in coastal communities that have ecosystems that can be negatively affected by flash flooding and sea-level rise.”

The Hampton Roads region, which includes 17 jurisdictions, has varying vulnerabilities and responses to flooding and sea level rise, she said. Working with NSU will help to spread resources across universities in the region, and coincides with another ODU project to network with researchers at the region’s other universities and community organizations.

Millions of Americans live in coastal communities that have ecosystems that can be negatively affected by flash flooding and sea-level rise.

“In terms of future collaborations, I think we’ve just begun to scratch the surface,” Dr. Yusuf said. “In the short-term, I envision the ODU-NSU team to continue to collaborate on projects assessing the vulnerability of under-resourced communities such as those in Portsmouth. In the longer term, the connection to social justice and environmental justice is what really resonated with the ODU team, and I foresee us continuing to work in this area.”

This partnership is part of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program managed by Oak Ridge Affiliated Universities (ORAU), which solicits competitive proposals from MSIs to perform summer research in residence at one of the DHS Centers of Excellence (COEs) under the mentorship of a COE researcher.

The student researchers presented outcomes of their summer work in late July. A recording of the complete presentation is available on the ODU website.  Individual student presentations are also available:

Slides from Dr. Okpodu can be viewed here and from Dr. Holmes can be viewed here.

Students participate in second annual summer exchange program

For the second summer, undergraduate and graduate students in Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) education programs were involved in a wide variety of academic exchange and professional internship programs, providing them the opportunity to gain important research skills and experience designed to aid their academic and future careers.

Sabrina Welch of Jackson State University learns about surveying at the University of Central Florida as part of the CRC's SUMREX program. Photo by Dr. Stephen Medeiros.
Sabrina Welch of Jackson State University learns about surveying at the University of Central Florida as part of the CRC’s SUMREX program. Photo by Dr. Stephen Medeiros.

Eight students who are enrolled in CRC-supported courses at partner universities were hosted by principal investigators (PIs) of CRC research projects through the SUMmer Research Experience (SUMREX) Program. As part of the program, CRC Education & Workforce Development partners arrange for one or more students to visit the home institution of participating CRC researchers for a summer research internship lasting between six and 10 weeks. Key to the program’s success is making the best match between the student interns and the research PIs, so that the students have the opportunity to become fully immersed in a research project. Students come largely from Minority-Serving Institutions, part of the CRC’s work to increase diversity in research environments.

Sabrina Welch, a PhD candidate in Engineering at Jackson State University, and Diego Delgado, a graduate student in Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, were hosted first by Dr. Stephen Medeiros at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and later by Dr. Scott Hagen at Louisiana State University (LSU).

During the UCF portion of her summer experience, Welch said she learned the fundamentals of the ADvanced CIRCulation (ADCIRC) model. This included the completion of a mathematical methods pre-test in addition to the Surface-water Modeling System (SMS + ADCIRC) boot camp tutorial. Two field days were also included, the first covering the basics of Real Time Kinematic (RTK) surveying, while the second day focused on teaching methods of assessing land cover in order to determine Manning’s n Value for a site of interest.

The second half of Welch’s SUMREX experience was spent at LSU, where she applied the knowledge gained at UCF. At LSU, she learned about high-performance computing and the Linux command line, the generation of ADCIRC required input files, executed storm surge simulations and analyzed output data.

“The SUMREX research program was a great experience for me as a rising ADCIRC user,” Welch said. “My participation in this program has led to an improved understanding of the ADCIRC system, which is beneficial since ADCIRC will play a major role in my PhD dissertation topic, and the knowledge gained will aid in the development of my aspiring career as a coastal engineer.”

In other pairings, two students from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, Hector J. Colon and Peter Rivera, both undergraduate students in Engineering, were hosted by Dr. Dan Cox at Oregon State University, where they learned about extreme surge/wave forces during hurricanes.

Stephen Kreller, a graduate student in Geography at Louisiana State University, was hosted by Dr. Brian Blanton at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose project involves developing enhancements to the ADCIRC storm surge model.

The University of Rhode Island (URI) hosted three undergraduate students from Tougaloo College: Psychology major Courtney Hill and Biology majors Rosalie Cissé and Kierra Jones. As a participant in URI’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURFO) program, Hill worked with co-PI Pam Rubinoff on the CRC project “Overcoming Barriers to Motivate Community Action to Enhance Resilience.” The summer project examined how the 2010 floods of Rhode Island led to specific reforms, creating a timeline of events, gathering information from documents and press reports and creating a social network map to showcase the various roles involved when discussing the new policies.

Cissé worked on a project identifying species of toxic plankton bloom present in the Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound in 2016.  Jones worked on a project analyzing the role of phytoplankton to temperature changes.

One-day exchange

Johnson C. Smith students spent a day learning from PI Dr. Casey Dietrich (foreground, left) at North Carolina State University.
Johnson C. Smith students spent a day learning from PI Dr. Casey Dietrich (foreground, left) at North Carolina State University.

Summer activities also included a one-day exchange where students from Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) in Charlotte, N.C., visited North Carolina State University (NCSU). Nine students enrolled in a summer research program led by Dr. Hang Chen visited the NCSU Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering (CCEE),   where CRC PI Dr. Casey Dietrich exposed the students to the concepts of computing-intensive and coastal resilience research.

The visiting students learned about the CCCE department, along with summer and graduate program opportunities. Dr. Dietrich arranged presentations and discussions with faculty members in their computing and system group. Ten faculty members presented their interdisciplinary research projects addressing problems throughout civil and environmental engineering using computational tools. The JCSU students also interacted with Dr. Dietrich’s graduate students and learned more about their  individual research projects.

Imyer Majors, a computer engineering major at Johnson C. Smith University, said he learned “exactly what an engineering graduate student looks like and how much work and dedication is put into the students’ work.

“We had the opportunity to go around to each student’s work area and hear their stories on what they all created,” Majors said. “I love the honesty they gave on the difficulties they were faced with in certain areas of their projects, and how they were able to think of different ways to solve them.”

CRC graduate participates in Hurricane Irma recovery

Matrix McDaniel, far right, is a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Memphis District Power Team currently working in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to aid recovery from Hurricane Irma.
Matrix McDaniel, far right, is a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Memphis District Power Team currently working in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to aid recovery from Hurricane Irma. Photo submitted.

A graduate of a Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) education program is part of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) team aiding in Hurricane Irma recovery.

Matrix McDaniel, a spring 2016 graduate of Jackson State University who earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering, is part of a 14-person USACE Memphis District team responding to impacts of Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico. The team arrived in the island territory on Sept. 11 to provide technical expertise and “turn-key” installation of FEMA emergency generators at critical public facilities, such as hospitals and shelters.

McDaniel joined the Memphis District earlier in the summer and is pursuing his Master of Science degree in Engineering with a Coastal Engineering concentration. His graduate education has been supported by the Education and Workforce Development program of the Department of Homeland Security Office of University Programs. One of the goals of the CRC’s education programs is to educate and place graduates in the workforce of the greater Homeland Security enterprise.

McDaniel’s role with the USACE Power Team is Action Officer, linking USACE, FEMA and other government institutions to fulfill requests. His background is in the technical elements of engineering, he said, and he has realized the value of project management skills in running on-the-ground projects. He said he credits his JSU education with providing a strong foundation in the engineering process.

“With project management experience, in addition to technical expertise, an engineer can venture into many more roles and gather many different experiences,” McDaniel said. “This is relevant because although the mission is to help repair infrastructure, the mission my team had was more about governing.”

The Power Team is part of more than 700 USACE employees in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, North Carolina AND Texas supporting the response to hurricanes Irma and Harvey. Hurricane Irma passed north of Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm on Sept. 7, causing more than 1 million residents to lose power in the initial wake of the event.