Category: Project Profile

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.

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.”

Education program to teach project management skills in emergency response settings

In the 10 years between 2003-2012, natural disasters caused estimated global losses of more than $150 billion and the loss of more than 100,000 lives per year, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster. Recovery from these disasters involves emergency management activities paid for by federal, state and local agencies and organizations.

For her project with the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC), Dr. Sandra Knight treats that recovery and building of resilience as a large-scale project that can be approached through project management frameworks.

Dr. Sandra Knight
Dr. Sandra Knight

The project led by Dr. Knight, “Development and Testing of a Project Management Curriculum for Emergency Managers,” at the University of Maryland (UMD) focuses on developing a curriculum to improve project management skills in the emergency management community. Other participants in the project include John Cable and Dr. Allison Reilly of the Project Management Institute at UMD.

To better manage the escalating costs and complex demands of natural hazards, emergency managers, engineers and construction managers should integrate their skills to deliver projects and programs that are resilient in post-disaster environments, Dr. Knight said. The goal of the education project is to develop and test a curriculum that combines the challenges of emergency management with the capabilities and technologies introduced through project management processes.

The Multi-Hazard Mitigation Council has established that building resilience into the built, environmental and social systems helps mitigate financial losses by a factor of at least 4:1.  While mitigating in advance of disasters is desirable, most funds are provided in a post-disaster environment – the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster mitigation grants represent approximately 15 percent of the total disaster dollars, Dr. Knight said.  Major investments are made through public assistance funds, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grants and supplemental appropriations for disaster response, clean-up and recovery.

“Managing the vast portfolio of disaster funds, which come from many disparate sources, is a daunting task that can be improved through proven organizational processes,” Dr. Knight said. “We live in an environment where the cost of disasters, particularly in coastal areas, is continually rising. By the year 2050, one report estimates that we’ll experience losses of $1 trillion a year in coastal areas.

“It is imperative, in this often-urgent post-disaster environment, that project and emergency managers have the right training and educational skills to effectively deliver projects on-time and on-budget while being considerate of the needs of the community and planning for a resilient future.”

A FEMA Community Relations team, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and State Emergency Response Team (SERT) members meet as they go door to door providing outreach for potential Tropical Storm Fay-affected residents in 2008. Photo by George Armstrong/FEMA.
A FEMA Community Relations team, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and State Emergency Response Team (SERT) members meet as they go door to door providing outreach for potential Tropical Storm Fay-affected residents in 2008. Photo by George Armstrong/FEMA.

Disasters create disruptive environments that require emergency managers to make critical decisions within limited time frames with often less-than-optimal resources, she said. These decisions include executing and managing projects and programs under volatile change management scenarios while people and communities are dealing with loss and confusion.

“By incorporating modern project management processes, technologies and skills, emergency managers will be able to manage and execute disaster-related projects and meet resilience goals more effectively and efficiently,” Dr. Knight said. “By building disaster-resilient concepts and emergency protocols into project management processes, project managers will be equipped to contribute to a more sustainable and disaster-resilient future.”

The project combines two distinct functions and career fields: Emergency management, which functions to protect communities and reduce vulnerabilities by mitigating and responding to hazards, and project management, the process of applying specific knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to meet project requirements. Project management tools include managing cost and schedules, preparing for change and mitigating project risks, maintaining quality assurance and quality control, while communicating expectations to those responsible for the projects and programs and those impacted by them.

Applying project management organizational processes and tools to emergency management, Dr. Knight said researchers hope to allow emergency managers to meet resilience goals more efficiently. By building disaster-resilience concepts and emergency protocols into project management, project managers will be better equipped to contribute to overall resilience.

Practitioners in emergency management and project managers who carry out emergency management activities will have the opportunity to hone their knowledge and skills through a set of courses that will be offered through the existing UMD Project Management Program. Curricula will be developed to support existing certifications for practitioners and both degree and non-degree programs at the University of Maryland. An introductory course, “Principles of Disaster Management,” was taught in the spring 2017 semester, with 11 students participating.

Managing the vast portfolio of disaster funds, which come from many disparate sources, is a daunting task that can be improved through proven organizational processes. We live in an environment where the cost of disasters, particularly in coastal areas, is continually rising.

Initial feedback was very positive, Dr. Knight said. Several students said that the experience made them more likely to pursue disaster-related fields, and scored highly the discussion of engineering solutions to societal issues.

UMD’s Center for Disaster Resilience will develop and test courses through coordination with the International Association of Emergency Management, FEMA coordinating offices and other potential Homeland Security partners. The project team will create targeted training materials and short-courses to provide the broadest access possible for practitioners.

While some emergency managers have experience in operating in fast-paced and disruptive environments, most do not have formal project management training, Knight said.

“When emergency managers, construction engineers and design engineers hit the ground post-disaster to recover and rebuild, it’s important that they do so smartly and effectively,” Dr. Knight said.

CRC researchers search for appropriate incentives for coastal home protection

Only half of single-family homes in FEMA-defined Special Flood Hazard Areas are estimated to have flood insurance. Outside of those zones, the rate is estimated at 1 percent. Only 4 percent of homeowners are expected to voluntarily retrofit their homes to be better prepared for wind damages under Florida’s current wind mitigation credit program.

Retrofitting and insurance are primary ways to manage coastal storm risks, but both are relatively under-utilized. A higher rate of both could lead to significant savings in areas frequently impacted by storms, if only governments and insurers could find ways to make people purchase better protections.

Dr. Rachel Davidson
Dr. Rachel Davidson

That is the issue being studied through a Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence project led by University of Delaware professor Dr. Rachel Davidson. Researchers involved in “An Interdisciplinary Approach to Household Strengthening and Insurance Decisions” are attempting to understand the processes that lead homeowners to purchase insurance or decide to retrofit their homes to defend against natural hazards. These decisions, researchers say, play into a large-scale effort to manage existing building stock at risk from coastal storms. Other researchers on the project are Dr. Jamie Kruse of East Carolina University, Dr. Linda Nozick of Cornell University and Dr. Joseph Trainor of the University of Delaware.

“Insurance and retrofitting of homes are two of the ways we can make communities safer and protect existing buildings,” Dr. Davidson said. “We need to understand how people make decisions to do those things or not.”

Dr. Davidson and the project team are using phone survey data they previously collected about homeowners’ self-reported past and future hurricane retrofit and insurance decisions. They will use it to fit new statistical models of homeowner decision-making, and will integrate those into an existing mathematical framework they developed as part of an earlier project.

“Future programs and policies intended to reduce coastal natural disaster risk will be more effective if designed to align with how homeowners actually make these choices,” Dr. Davidson said.

Making communities safer

The survey data come from more than 350 homeowners in eastern North Carolina. The mathematical framework includes models of homeowner and primary insurer decisions, together with a model that estimates hurricane losses and inputs representing reinsurer and government roles. Using the model, researchers will fit choices made (buying insurance or not buying it, retrofitting or not) to the description of homeowner, type of home and alternatives available to them.

The research team will study the effectiveness of different types of incentives on, for example, deciding to retrofit a property.

“We’re trying to predict what percentage of people would undertake these tasks, to get a better idea of what the likely penetration rate is for insurance if we change the price or any of the characteristics of the policy,” Dr. Davidson said.

Dr. Davidson's model will be developed using phone survey data from 350 respondents in eastern North Carolina.
Dr. Davidson’s model will be developed using phone survey data from 350 respondents in eastern North Carolina.

They hope the resulting models can be used to predict the percentage of homeowners in a region will buy insurance or choose to retrofit a property under each described circumstance or hypothetical, government-led program.

End users for the project include the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration – Risk Analysis Division; the National Preparedness Directorate in FEMA’s Individual and Community Preparedness Division; the Association of State Floodplain Managers; and the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Applied Economics Office Community Resilience Group and Materials and Structural Systems Division.

Developing a win-win

The project framework will capitalize on the emerging view that mitigation efforts are good investments that can save money before a disaster, as compared to costs for recovering from a disaster. Similarly, the whole community’s involvement broadens the impacts of decisions across a wider group of people than just the homeowners themselves.

So far, findings are that, as expected, higher premiums correspond with a lower percentage of homeowners buying insurance for flood damages. The trend is similar to that for wind damage. Demand for insurance, however, is not very sensitive to premium and deductible costs. Homeowners are more likely to purchase insurance if they have had a more recent experience with a hurricane or tropical storm, are in a floodplain, are closer to the coast, are younger and/or have a higher income. The recent experience factor had more of an impact when the storm caused damage to their home.

“Insurers, or in the case of the federal government, the National Flood Insurance Program, need to understand how to set rates,” Dr. Davidson said. “They need them to be high enough they can stay solvent in the case of an event, but also low enough that people will actually buy the products.”

For retrofitting decision-making, initial data suggests that grants to homeowners have a bigger impact than low-interest loans or insurance premium reductions. Homeowners that are closer to the coast, in a floodplain, in a newer home or have experienced a hurricane or tropical storm in the last year are, similar to the insurance purchase model, more likely to invest in retrofitting.

“We hope to put it all together to understand how we should be designing these policies so they are as effective as possible. We want to make sure that, from each group’s perspective, they are better off and more resilient at the end.”

Each of the end users in this project face challenges. Homeowners who do not have appropriate insurance and have not retrofitted their homes face longer roads to recovery after an event. Governments, similarly, face larger, unexpected costs that can disrupt the efficiency of municipal budgeting. Insurers have to price insurance low enough that it is purchased but high enough to insure profits and fiscal solvency.

A “win-win” tool or approach that addresses these interdependent needs and challenges would depend on homeowner biases that include aversion to upfront costs, underestimation of the probability of a disaster and a short time in which to make changes, Dr. Davidson said. Ultimately, the researchers plan to develop a software tool to help state-level officials identify and evaluate alternative public policies aimed at finding effective, sustainable, win-win solutions to better manage natural disaster risk associated with existing buildings.

Specific policy tools could range from offering grants up to a certain percentage of homeowner retrofitting costs, at a capped amount. Alternately, it could include a program to buy damaged homes up to a percentage of their market value. The tool could help agencies think about the role each end user group can play and how different policy choice could impact each group.

“We hope to put it all together to understand how we should be designing these policies so they are as effective as possible,” Dr. Davidson said. “We want to make sure that, from each group’s perspective, they are better off and more resilient at the end.”

Project integrates storm surge modeling into resilience planning for vulnerable communities

Researchers at Louisiana State University and thousands of residents in south Louisiana are still feeling the effects of historic rain event that hit the area in August 2016. The event brought more than two feet of rain in some areas during the month, with 11 river gauges in the state reporting record flood levels.

Dr. Robert Twilley
Dr. Robert Twilley

A project led by Dr. Robert Twilley of Louisiana State University hopes to help communities adapt planning and response to minimize the impact of future storms that could leave similar damage. Dr. Twilley’s project, “Integrated Approaches to Creating Community Resilience Designs in a Changing Climate,” is aimed at improving resilience in two specific ways; focusing emergency response to better protect vulnerable infrastructure and people, and reducing repetitive loss by giving community planners accurate estimates of infrastructure vulnerability of events that may happen in the future.

His team includes faculty at other Louisiana State University institutions: Director Jeff Carney and Assistant Research Professor Traci Birch of the Coastal Sustainability Studio, Brant Mitchell, Director of the Stephenson Disaster Management Institute; and Carola Kaiser of the Center for Computation and Technology. This combination provides end users with experts from the fields of disaster research and response; coastal hazards modeling; planning and design; and outreach from the Louisiana Sea Grant College program (where Dr. Twilley is executive director).

“Communities want clear guidance on what infrastructure and people could be threatened by a tropical storm and/or major rainfall events,” Dr. Twilley said. “Our project integrates coastal modeling tools into community design and planning, and couples it with outreach efforts to emergency managers and land use planners to obtain community-level data about vulnerable infrastructure.”

Researchers will develop pre- and post-disaster planning and adaptation tools for coastal communities to improve resilience. These efforts will enable vulnerable communities to plan, react and recover more quickly and effectively in areas facing repetitive disturbances. They have been incorporating consequence modeling – which creates realistic scenarios for planning before a disaster – into results from CERA, the mapping interface that displays results of the ADCIRC storm surge model to show how flood risks will impact people, industry and coastal infrastructure. Using that tool, project participants will inform community planners on impacts, helping them reduce repetitive loss by updating land use and redevelopment guidelines following flood events.

With trusted sources doing community outreach to emergency managers and planners, researchers hope to mitigate future risks through current action. Building on the strength of each research and outreach center in the partnership, they aim to reach vulnerable populations with flood prediction, protection and response materials.

The resulting CERA-Consequence Model will show how flood risk (both from storms and sea-level rise) will impact people, industry and infrastructure. Utilizing this data, they plan to provide:

  • Planning tools that visualize risks to include hurricane-force winds, storm surge and inland flooding along with vulnerable populations based on socio-economic status
  • Modeling and visualization tools to communicate flood risks during a storm by identifying vulnerable populations and structures that are susceptible to storm surge
  • Post-landfall search and rescue grid system with prioritization based on socio-economic vulnerabilities
  • Methodology for helping community planning departments and recovery planning teams effectively utilize and implement changes to their built environment through effective resilience-based planning.

Dealing with the Consequences

Using consequence modeling, researchers identified what areas of Vermilion Parish, La., are at greatest risk after a hurricane.

The CERA-Consequence Model has so far been used to capture the diversity of coastal infrastructure and assets in the Mississippi River Deltaic Plain (MRDP). Researchers have conducted preliminary analysis of hurricane impact scenarios to capture the diversity of recovery and adaptation needs in the MRDP to determine what data can be used in the model. They will take this data to build an automated model in the CERA mapping platform to interpret ADCIRC Surge Guidance System (ASGS) outputs and analyze community-level impacts of expected storm surge in a new website called “CERA-Planning.”

In the first year of the project, Dr. Twilley and the project team focused on outreach to ensure local, state and federal planners – along with emergency managers – were aware of the project and its potential to influence decision-making and planning processes. Those reached include the State of Louisiana, American Planning Association and the Louisiana Emergency Preparedness Association, as well as many local and regional emergency management groups, among others.

Proposed modeling products were evaluated at an annual focus group workshop to engage end users directly in the development process. Feedback is now being used to develop integrated approaches on the new CERA-Planning website, for university-based design studio courses and design/outreach entities working in target communities.

Building the database

Researchers also formed a focus group of emergency managers and planners to determine sectors not involved in the data-collection process. Already, the data stream is expected to be large, comprising more than 140,000 data points on infrastructure from the State of Louisiana that serves as the basis for this model. The scope for the project includes possible expansion to communities across the United States, bringing in additional users such as the National Communications Center (NCC). The NCC is responsible for providing situational awareness for all communications infrastructure during tropical cyclones and U.S. Coast Guard–Sector New Orleans.

More than 140,000 data points, shown above, are used to build the model.
More than 140,000 data points, shown above, are used to build the model.

Other additions could include adoption of parcel data and building footprints in the consequence model. Critical infrastructure such as water utilities and sewer treatment plants will be included, as storm surge could disrupt their operations and severely impact a community’s ability to recover.

The original data source for the 140,000 data points on infrastructure across the State was a joint project between SDMI and GOHSEP funded by FEMA.  This data set established the original source of information for the consequence model in this CRC project; initial focus groups worked to prioritize information needed to indicate infrastructure vulnerabilities.

“This information will also be used to prioritize information needed to identify infrastructure vulnerabilities in planning to reduce competitive losses,” Dr. Twilley said.

Interdisciplinary program teaches students, community about disaster sciences

At Tougaloo College, an interdisciplinary minor is helping prepare students for careers in homeland security-related fields.

Dr. Meherun Laiju is leading the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) project, “Institutionalization, Expansion, and Enhancement of Interdisciplinary Minor: Disaster and Coastal Studies,” which will expand the role of Geographic Information System (GIS) and other skills and undergraduate research opportunities within the curriculum of an existing Disaster and Coastal Studies minor. The project will also create a certificate program for anyone – whether or not they are enrolled students – looking to broaden their knowledge of community resilience.

“Our goals are three-fold,” Dr. Laiju said. “Train undergraduate students in interdisciplinary skills necessary to mitigate natural and man-made coastal hazards through research, training and coursework; neighborhood outreach initiatives in collaboration with Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA); and create a professional certificate program.

Dr. Meherun Laiju (front row, third from left) with Tougaloo College faculty and students in the Disaster and Coastal Studies minor.
Dr. Meherun Laiju (front row, third from left) with Tougaloo College faculty and students in the Disaster and Coastal Studies minor.

“The certificate program will prepare undergraduates to join a workforce related to DHS and emergency management agencies. The neighborhood outreach initiative will offer opportunities for community leaders and interested citizens to be trained as first responders which will help in preparing resilient communities.”

The Disaster and Coastal Studies minor was launched through the Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence, the Department of Homeland Security-funded predecessor of the CRC. Faculty members from physics, sociology, psychology and political science departments introduced students to disaster-related research through a variety of fields and are currently working to expand the program.

Students’ careers impacted

Tougaloo College, located in Jackson, Miss., is a private historically black college, and the majority of students are the first generation of their families to attend college. The project will build homeland security capacity for this Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), to build capacity for the future homeland security workforce, and prepare students for graduate schools and research programs in the field of coastal natural disasters, including those that are part of the CRC.

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Doctoral engineering program focuses on coastal natural disasters

Students interested in coastal natural disasters can soon pursue specialized concentrations within the doctoral engineering degree program at Jackson State University (JSU).

Through the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) project “PhD in Engineering (Coastal Engineering and Computational Engineering concentrations) at an HBCU,” Principal Investigator Dr. Robert W. Whalin is forming the first PhD Engineering degree concentrations focusing on coastal natural disasters within the Historically Black Colleges and Universities academic community.

Two new concentrations, Coastal Engineering and Computational Engineering, each focusing on hurricanes and floods, will be added to the PhD Engineering degree program at JSU.

Dr. Robert Whalin
Dr. Robert Whalin

Dr. Whalin said the program will prepare new engineering scholars in the field of coastal resilience and will help increase diversity in the greater homeland security enterprise. Building education programs at HBCUs like Jackson State University, where about 90 percent of students identify as African-Americans, can help reverse their underrepresentation in the engineering profession, he said.

“The 15 HBCUs with ABET accredited engineering programs graduate about 1 percent of BS engineers nationwide while graduating about 22% of African-American BS engineers nationwide,” Dr. Whalin said. “If the nation has any expectation of successfully addressing the underrepresentation of African-American engineers, the solution must strongly depend on increasing engineering programs and graduates at HBCUs.”

The Computational Engineering concentration is already listed in the school’s graduate catalog, while the Coastal Engineering concentration is expected to be added this year. Four current graduate students plan to enroll in the Coastal Engineering concentration immediately after its launch, Dr. Whalin said, and the program’s first graduate is expected in 2018 or 2019. After that, the program is projected to graduate about one to three doctoral students annually.

Strengthening Engineering at JSU

The doctoral engineering project builds off undergraduate and graduate coastal natural disaster focused courses and concentrations Dr. Whalin developed through the Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence, a DHS Science & Technology Directorate Office of University Programs-funded center that preceded the CRC.

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Project aims to change reaction to risk information

How can a method used to get smokers to quit be used to get people better prepared for hurricanes?

As much as building better levees, tracking storms more accurately and training future emergency professionals, changing the behavior of residents in storm-susceptible communities can have a major effect on resilience to natural hazards. Initiating changes in behavior – to faster, more substantive decision-making in the event of an oncoming hazard – is the focus of a Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) project led by Dr. James Prochaska of the Cancer Prevention Research Center at the University of Rhode Island.

Dr. Prochaska’s project focuses on how individuals react to risk information. He says his well-established method of tailoring behavioral changes can be applied to all manner of behaviors, such as insurance purchases, buying supplies for long power outages and more.

The project team also includes researchers Dr. Andrea Paiva, Pam Rubinoff, Dr. Janet Johnson, Dr. Norman Mundorf and Dr. Colleen Redding. Read more

Researchers focus on actions that increase preparedness, resilience

Building better levees, tracking storms more accurately and training future emergency management professionals can have a major impact on community resilience to natural hazards. On the individual level, however, changing the behavior of residents in storm-susceptible communities could yield similarly fruitful results. When individuals get specific information about how a storm could impact their property and livelihood, these behavior changes could be even greater.

Dr. James Opaluch
Dr. James Opaluch

Dr. James Opaluch, a professor of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Rhode Island (URI), leads a Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) project that focuses on how individuals react to risk information. Dr. Opaluch’s project, “Overcoming Barriers to Motivate Community Action to Enhance Resilience,” aims to improve the resiliency of communities by providing better information on the barriers people face to adapting to coastal storm hazards.

URI investigators on the project include Dr. Austin Becker, Assistant Professor of Coastal Planning, Policy, and Design; and Donald Robadue and Pamela Rubinoff of URI’s Coastal Resources Center. Read more

Project teaches students wider application of computer sciences

At Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) in Charlotte, N.C., Coastal Resilience Center (CRC) Principal investigator Dr. Hang Chen is working to prepare the next generation of leaders in coastal resilience.

Through her project, “Preparing Tomorrow’s Minority Task Force in Coastal Resilience through Interdisciplinary Education, Research, and Curriculum Development,” undergraduate students at JCSU – a Historically Black College and University with one of the nation’s leading computer science programs – are learning how their talents, interests and perspectives can help protect coastal communities from threats related to natural hazards and climate change.

Dr. Hang Chen
Dr. Hang Chen

Last fall, nine undergraduate students researched hazards risk management using an interdisciplinary approach that integrated computer science, geoscience and social science methodologies. Through the process, students explored risk assessment and analysis theory, and reviewed key actions communities can take to reduce and manage vulnerability. Students then applied this knowledge to a case study of Hurricane Matthew in which they analyzed the impact and proposed a hypothetical hurricane emergency management plan for a town of their choice.

As the CRC project progresses, JCSU students will learn more about coastal resilience through four new undergraduate courses and a seminar series that brings academic leaders and practitioners to campus. Research opportunities for undergraduate students during the academic year and summer will also continue under the direction of Chen, who also serves as College of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) interim dean and chairwoman of the computer science and engineering department.

Tailoring research to community needs

Jean-Marie Nshimiyimana
Jean-Marie Nshimiyimana

Last fall, JCSU senior Jean-Marie Nshimiyimana was part of a team that studied how different populations in Daytona Beach, Fla., reacted to Hurricane Matthew. Their research compared responses between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kennedy Space Center and the broader community, and assessed how well the local government provided information to all groups, including tourists. They also analysed how homeowners’ understanding of risk affected how seriously they took pre-event warnings.

“It was pretty interesting to see the way people responded to evacuation notices because their initial thoughts were, ‘We’re safe. We’re not going to be impacted,’” Nshimiyimana said.

Nshimiyimana said the research was an opportunity to apply skills he has learned in the computer science department.

“Most of the stereotypes that are behind being a computer science major is that you’re only going to focus on developing applications or coding or other things that are related to computer science exclusively,” he said. “The blend made it more interesting and more fascinating because not only was I able to use mapping systems, I was able to learn how to use my skills in doing deeper analysis and interpretation of data to provide a conclusion on how to better serve the community using what I know.”

For Nshimiyimana, a native of Burundi, improving hazard risk management and community resilience is personal. Flooding and landslides have ravaged the central African country during the past few years, leveling homes and injurings hundreds. A torrential rain event in 2014 killed at least 69 people and displaced nearly 20,000 people, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Dr. Ying Bai, a professor of computer engineering at JCSU, supervises student research for the CRC.
Dr. Ying Bai, a professor of computer engineering at JCSU, supervises student research for the CRC. Photo by Jeff Cravotta.

Nshimiyimana said he understands how a lack of financial resources can be a barrier to involving the community in risk management, and sees potential for better utilizing mapping tools to identify vulnerable land and communicate risks to urban planners and Burundi citizens.

“The research really helped me gain a better understanding of why decision-making, urban planning and other mitigation processes are really important to the safety of people within the communities,” he said.

Investigating whether certain socio-economic groups are more vulnerable to natural hazards than others has been a common interest among students engaged with the CRC project so far, Chen said.

“Many students came from economically disadvantaged communities,” she said. “Students involved in the research showed sincere interest in learning more about their community’s risk from natural hazards and vulnerabilities. They also felt empowered to make a positive impact on their communities.”

A focus on diversity

In addition to bringing fresh perspectives to the field, the CRC project aims to address the underrepresentation of minority students pursuing careers in coastal resilience.

Chen said the rise of knowledge-based economies has increased the need for an especially skilled and diverse workforce, which has precipitated a demand for minority graduates who take a multidisciplinary and customer-driven approach to STEM promoted through the Department of Homeland Security.

“Although there is no singular reason for the racial disparities within the college major choices, literature suggests that the barriers exist, which include academic under-preparedness, lack of mentorship, and negative race and gender stereotypes regarding the ability to succeed in STEM fields,” she said.

Students and recent graduates, several of whom were featured in a DHS University Programs video on the JCSU program: (from left) Jean-Marie Nshimiyimana, Kimberly McFadden, Allen Johnson, Michael Gibbs, Gabriel Garcia, Linwood Robinson.
Students and recent graduates, several of whom were featured in a DHS University Programs video on the JCSU program: (from left) Jean-Marie Nshimiyimana, Kimberly McFadden, Allen Johnson, Michael Gibbs, Gabriel Garcia, Linwood Robinson.

By addressing societal issues like sustainability, environmental justice, and community resilience, the project’s programs will help attract new students to the STEM discipline and offer a more holistic understanding of STEM fields that employers and graduate study programs are looking for, Chen said.

“We need to identify knowledge and skills gaps in STEM graduates and how we could give our students the experience, skills and potential to excel in graduate studies and workplaces,” she said.

Nshimiyimana, who will pursue graduate studies in computer science, said participating in research as an undergraduate student was a worthwhile opportunity to expand his understanding of the field and give back to the community.

“We all have a role to play,” he said. “I believe the students I have been working with, my peers, have demonstrated a great appreciation for why it’s important to be socially aware and what measures students can take in contributing to making communities aware of the challenges they face, if not tomorrow then in the near future.”