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Louisiana State project formalizes teaching of disaster management

Louisiana has a storied history of hurricanes tropical storms, and heavy rainfall events that have had dire impacts in the coastal communities, where much of the state’s population and infrastructure reside. A Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) project, based at Louisiana State University (LSU), aims to formalize teaching students about management of disaster events like these and the science behind those disasters.

Dr. Barry Keim
Dr. Barry Keim

Dr. Barry Keim, a Professor in the Louisiana State University Department of Geography and Anthropology, leads an education project called “LSU’s Disaster Science and Management Program.” Dr. Keim, who is also the Louisiana State Climatologist, will focus on institutionalizing an existing education program by making it an integral part of the Geography degree program. Dr. Alan W. Black, an Assistant Professor of Research in the Department of Geography & Anthropology, also manages and teaches in the program.

As an end result, both bachelor’s of arts and bachelor’s of science degrees will include a concentration from the Disaster Science and Management Program (DSM), and the courses will be offered as a minor to students with majors in other departments. For the first eight years of its existence, the program had no home department.

Dr. Keim also hopes to enhance an existing relationship with Baton Rouge Community College (BRCC), which offers an Emergency Management program. That relationship would include easing credit transfers for students entering LSU from BRCC to continue the BA or BS degree.

“Louisiana’s propensity for natural disasters – including hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Isaac – demonstrates a clear need for a robust disaster science and management program in the region,” Dr. Keim said. “We intend to build a curriculum that is a mix of on-campus and online courses, and will build on the past successes of the student internship program.”

The program officially commenced as part of the Geography Department in the 2016 fall semester. Classes include “Hazards, Disasters and the Environment,” “Fundamentals in Emergency Management” and “Hazard Risk Reduction,” as well as technique courses in the Geographic Information System (GIS) and remote sensing.  An average of more than 140 students have been enrolled in the program over the last four semesters.

Coursework covers natural coastal disasters, resilience and geomorphology (the study of the earth’s surface features and their relationship to geological structures). It focuses on different types of disaster elements such as hurricanes, storm surge, tornadoes and rainfall, as well as use of mapping technology in plotting disaster impacts. Students are taught not only about hazards and disasters, but also how to reduce the risk of those hazards.

LSU students visit the Baton Rouge Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness as part of Dr. Barry Keim's project.
LSU students visit the Baton Rouge Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security and
Emergency Preparedness as part of Dr. Barry Keim’s project.

“We want to make the concentration available to students regardless of which path they want to take – more of a social science path or more of a hard science path,” Dr. Keim said. “Ultimately, what we’re trying to train students for is the Homeland Security enterprise. We want students to come out of this with some tools they can actually use, to have something in their toolbox to sell to employers.

“We want them to take at least one course in computer cartography or GIS. The more types of skills they have, the more marketable they’ll be.”

Real-world experiences

In addition the classroom experience, students have been placed at internships across a wide range of organizations, from the American Red Cross and the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (LA GOHSEP) to local groups such as the East Baton Rogue Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness and Ascension Parish Emergency Management. LA GOHSEP and parish emergency management and law enforcement groups have hired graduates of the program as well.

“This is where the rubber meets the road – when students take their book knowledge and actually apply it in the real world,” Dr. Keim said. “They also learn the value of the techniques they’ve learned as they apply GIS technology to actual problems.”

The program integrates research and education through CRC programs as well. An LSU graduate student participated in the Summer Research Experience program, spending the summer of 2016 with Principal Investigator Dr. Don Resio at the University of North Florida studying storm surge modeling. The LSU program will host Dr. Resio for a return lecture this year through the RETALK program. This summer, another LSU graduate student spent most of the summer working with Brian Blanton at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill learning the nuances of the Advanced Circulation (ADCIRC) Model for storm surge modeling.

“Louisiana’s propensity for natural disasters – including hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Isaac – demonstrates a clear need for a robust disaster science and management program in the region.”

The program has also established potential partnerships at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at Naval Postgraduate School National Center for Biomedical Research and Training at LSU. Other partners include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program (SCIPP).  SCIPP is a research initiative that focuses on climate extremes and involves stakeholder input. This research program intersects well with the educational DSM program by uniting teaching and research projects, Dr. Keim said.

“We are training the next generation of emergency managers,” he said. “And we are providing them with a firm geographical foundation to integrate humans with the natural and built environment.”

Modeling tool brings commercial services into resiliency planning

In the wake of a disaster, access to roads, power, water supplies and other publicly managed utilities are important to the recovery process. But where do commercial services that provide access to food, medications, fuel and banking fit into community’s concept of post-disaster resiliency?

Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) Principal Investigator Dr. William “Al” Wallace of Rensselaer Polytechnic University (RPI) is considering this question through his project “COmmunity SUpply REsiliency (COMSURE).” The project focuses on the degree to which critical services can be maintained during an event or restored in its aftermath. Researchers on the project include Dr. John Mitchell, Dr. Thomas Sharkey and Richard Little, all of RPI.

Dr. William "Al" Wallace
Dr. William “Al” Wallace

The objective of the research is to better understand, describe and portray the supply chains that provide the goods and services needed to respond to and recover from an extreme event, such as a hurricane impacting a coastal community. The result will be GIS visualizations of supply chains for review by both providers of critical goods and emergency managers.

Researchers have collected data on critical commercial services and their interdependencies with civil infrastructure in New Hanover County, a coastal county in North Carolina that is home to more than 200,000 people. This information was used to create a dataset for CLARC, an artificial test community where researchers can simulate interruptions to delivery systems of critical commercial services based on expected infrastructure outages from a hypothetical storm event.

One example is the supply chain for distribution of gasoline, overlaid onto maps of a municipality. This supply chain will be integrated with others developed in past research. Dr. Wallace and team hope to, through the model, represent relationships between supply chains and support infrastructure such as power, communications and transportation. They hope to help emergency managers and those responsible for managing infrastructure be able to share information to determine the best mitigation and restoration strategies.

Dr. Wallace said one of the team’s major – but not unexpected – findings from the CLARC simulations using critical commercial service data was that those enterprises are subject to the same types of disruptions as healthcare, public safety and other social infrastructures.

Land cover designations in CLARC, an artificial community used to test the COMSURE models, is shown.
Land cover designations in CLARC, an artificial community used to test the COMSURE models, is shown.

“They all require power, water and sewer, communications and transportation to function,” Dr. Wallace said. “However, we did learn that the supply chain for prescription medications is unlike those for food, fuel and banking services because its products can’t be provided through self-organizing community networks.

“In an emergency, people can informally swap or trade in food and fuel if it’s available and even lend and borrow money but it’s both illegal and potentially life-threatening to for people to share prescription medications. Our emergency response and recovery planning typically does not take this into account.”

The COMSURE modeling tool will be incorporated into the existing MUNICIPAL tool that shows interdependencies between civil infrastructures and the delivery of critical services, including healthcare, emergency management and public safety.

Commercial facilities are mapped in the artificial CLARC community.
Commercial facilities are mapped in the artificial CLARC community.

MUNICIPAL focused on the restoration of critical infrastructure systems, including network models of social infrastructure systems, a damage assessment model and a disruption of services model.

The COMSURE tool is designed for local emergency managers and federal analysts interested in improving policies that affect community resilience to extreme events, Dr. Wallace said. If incorporated into university curricula for emergency management, he said it may also help a new generation of emergency managers to be more comfortable with computer-aided decision support tools for planning and training purposes.

The tool will also be made available to private sector service providers interested in improving the resilience of their supply chains.

“The tool will ultimately be available through DHS/FEMA for anyone to use as they see fit,” Dr. Wallace said. “The private sector could use it to identify vulnerabilities in their supply chains) and take corrective actions to reduce the vulnerabilities such as back-up generators or alternative suppliers.”

Previously, information about the role of critical commercial services in community resiliency was largely anecdotal, Dr. Wallace said. This is particularly true for the end-of-chain customer interactions that directly affect people.

“Private enterprises are a key element of community resilience, and the public emergency management operation needs to be aware of this.”

A better understanding of these complex interactions will assist emergency managers, utility service providers and other key decision makers in determining what assets should be hardened against damage and what should be the priorities for service restoration following an extreme event so that the most critical services are made available in the shortest possible time, he said.

“Private enterprises are a key element of community resilience, and the public emergency management operation needs to be aware of this, and consider some of them for priority restoration,” Dr. Wallace said. “This is particularly true for stores that serve areas that have a high percentage of vulnerable households such as the elderly, poor and disabled. These communities will tend to rely on local merchants and may lack the mobility to travel extra distances to secure what they need.”

Work across multiple states focuses on health of levee systems

About 43 percent of the nation’s population lives in areas protected by levees, but rising sea levels and land subsidence increasingly threaten these structures.

That’s why Dr. Victoria Bennett of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) is working to empower levee officials to use satellite imagery and GPS sensors to more quickly and cost-effectively assess the health of levee systems and prioritize levee maintenance.

Dr. Victoria Bennett
Dr. Victoria Bennett

Bennett is the Principal Investigator for the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) project “Establishment of Remote-Sensing Based Monitoring Program for Performance Limit State Assessment of the Sacramento Delta,” which brings together researchers from across the country to validate remote-sensing measurements from a section of the Sherman Island levee in California’s Sacramento Delta.

While Bennett conducts field work in California and manages the monitoring system at RPI in New York, Dr. Mo Gabr and Dr. Brina Montoya at North Carolina State University are using the collected data to develop the computer model in PLAXIS-2D. Other research partners include the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Research and Development Center in Mississippi.

“This project brings together the necessary combination of numerical modelers, experimentalists, remote sensing experts and end users,” Dr. Bennett said. “We can do much more together than any one researcher could do on their own. While it is sometimes preferable to meet face-to-face, a lot can be accomplished remotely.”

The project involves attaching three advanced, standalone GPS stations to a section of the Sherman Island levee and using the data from these in situ sensors to validate measurements from airborne and satellite radar images of the levee over time. These validated measurements are used to develop a numerical model to help assess the levee’s structural stability from increased stress from the water load pushing against it and variable rates of peat layer decomposition underlying the California Delta area.

“The model provides data that allow the end user to classify the levee within the context of ‘acceptable’ versus ‘need improvement’ performance limit states,” Dr. Gabr said.

A change in process

The use of this technology is a sharp departure from the visual inspections often used to assess levees, Dr. Bennett said.

One of the in situ measuring stations is shown at the Sherman Island levee in California.
One of the in situ measuring stations is shown at the Sherman Island levee in California.

“When regular visual inspections are conducted by trained personnel, this is an effective way of recording and reacting to necessary levee maintenance if the issue is visible to the human eye,” she said. “A remote sensing-based approach coupled with modeling will allow us to detect much smaller deformations, hopefully enabling a shift from reactive to proactive maintenance.”

To date, project partners have discovered that amorphous peat composition led to lower levee displacement than fibrous peat, and that high water levels in the short term caused less displacement in view of the magnitude of the compression of the levee’s peat layer over time.

The computer model for assessing the deformation response of the levee at Sherman Island has been built within PLAXIS-2D, a geotechnical engineering tool that allows two-dimensional analysis of stability, including the effect of loading from multiple storms and long-term deformation effects.

End users for the project include the California Department of Water Resources, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the California Reclamation District #341.

Levees in the Sacramento Delta were chosen because of their high risk of failure and their location in an area of high seismic activity, Bennett said. A preliminary risk assessment showed a 40 percent chance that least 30 islands within the Delta area would be flooded by simultaneous levee failures in a major earthquake in the next 25 years. Failure of the system could jeopardize the individuals living in the area, roughly $500 million in agriculture crops and the freshwater system for Southern California.

Once remote sensing measurements are validated and researchers gain confidence with their technique, the project’s results could help improve levee systems beyond the Sacramento Delta, Dr. Bennett said.

Failing grades

Dr. Mo Gabr
Dr. Mo Gabr

The American Society of Civil Engineers 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gives the condition of the country’s dams a grade of D and levees a grade of D-, which is unchanged since the 2009 report. The situation is further complicated by the massive amount of flood-control infrastructure to inspect.

Assessing the health, predicting the failure of and implementing countermeasures are challenging tasks for any civil infrastructure because they suffer long-term wear from the environment, Dr. Bennett said. To efficiently maintain this infrastructure, managing engineers should have access to fully automated programs to continuously monitor, assess the health and adaptively upgrade these systems.

“An accurate monitoring and health assessment of a sprawling system of levees, such as those protecting New Orleans or along the Mississippi River, using only traditional sensors and sensing techniques is expensive and technically challenging,” she said. “We propose deploying cost-effective tools and techniques that build on existing remote sensing assets to monitor levee health for long-term failure mitigation.”

Potential follow-on work includes developing a user interface for the modeling that results from current data collection; adapting parameters of the model based on observations of peat layer decomposition; and linking results to general resilience guidelines for water, ecological and economic resources of the area surrounding levees.

Coastal Resilience Center to lead post-Matthew disaster recovery efforts

Kinston is one of six communities that are the focus of the Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative. Photo by Travis Klondike/N.C. State University.
Kinston is one of six communities that are the focus of the Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative. Photo by Travis Klondike/N.C. State University.

Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) researchers and students across several North Carolina universities will be leading three primary efforts in response to Hurricane Matthew. These include: 1) studying the impacts of Hurricane Matthew on eastern North Carolina communities; 2) advising North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management (NCEM) officials on state and federal recovery policies and programs; and 3) assisting communities develop disaster recovery plans.

Dr. Gavin Smith
Dr. Gavin Smith

Titled the Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative (HMDRRI), this effort is led by Dr. Gavin Smith, who is CRC Director and Professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC-Chapel Hill. Funding of more than $900,000 for the HMDRRI is provided through three entities: The N.C. Policy Collaboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the State of North Carolina through disaster-recovery legislation; and the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate.

“We will be linking what we know about disaster recovery to inform state and federal policies and programs, and assisting communities to develop disaster recovery plans,” Dr. Smith said. “These plans will provide a roadmap for recovery, linking key community goals with a clear implementation strategy.”

Working with the state, multiple communities

NCEM and the North Carolina Governor’s Office have asked Dr. Smith to serve as a Senior Recovery Advisor in addition to Chief of the HMDRRI. He will advise NCEM, Gov. Cooper and members of his cabinet on a range of disaster recovery policy issues. Specific examples include helping the state develop a disaster recovery housing strategy, advising the state on the allocation and coordination of funding, the identification of unmet local needs and developing strategies focused on assisting local governments and disaster survivors recover from one of the worst disasters in the state’s history. Read more

Coastal Resilience Center joins Southeast Disaster Recovery Partnership

The Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) has joined a regional government partnership to aid the disaster recovery process in the Southeastern United States.

Southeast Disaster Recovery Partnership logoThe Southeast Disaster Recovery Partnership, which is run by the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA), was formed as the result of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant to strengthen resilience and recovery in coastal communities. The CRC is an advisory committee partner in the effort, which includes groups from emergency management, economics and coastal hazards.

Amanda Martin, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) PhD student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, leads one aspect of the project. Martin is the Resilience Project Manager for the Partnership, and is conducting research on the role of public-private sector partnerships and engagement in recovery planning.

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RENCI and Coastal Resilience Center partnership honored with 2016 HPCwire Editors’ Choice Award

The CERA website shows Matthew's projected storm path and surge on Oct. 6, 2016, as the storm made its way up the East Coast.
The CERA website shows Matthew’s projected storm path and surge on Oct. 6, 2016, as the storm made its way up the East Coast.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) and the Department of Homeland Security Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) have been recognized in the annual HPCwire Readers’ and Editors’ Choice Awards, presented at the 2016 International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis (SC16) in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The RENCI/CRC collaboration won Editors’ Choice: Best Use of High-Performance Data Analytics, based on their partnership on ADCIRC, which is used to model storm surge from tropical storms. The partnership is the focus of an HPCwire article written in October, “RENCI/Dell Supercomputer Charts Hurricane Matthew’s Storm Surge.” During Hurricane Matthew, ADCIRC model results were used to predict storm impacts; North Carolina reported more than 20 storm-related deaths, portions of I-95 were closed for more than a week and 31 counties were declared federal disaster areas.

The full list of winners is available on

Dr. Rick Luettich uses the Coastal Emergency Risks Assessment website to display ADCIRC storm surge model results.
Dr. Rick Luettich uses the Coastal Emergency Risks Assessment website to display ADCIRC storm surge model results.

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CRC project tracks long-term recovery in communities

Dr. Jennifer Horney believes that the quality of disaster recovery can be markedly improved with a well-designed, comprehensive and holistic pre-disaster recovery plan.

Dr. Jennifer Horney
Dr. Jennifer Horney

Dr. Horney, of Texas A&M University, is the Principal Investigator on the Coastal Resilience Center project “Implementing the Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool.”

Dr. Horney and research associate Katie Kirsch collect long-term data on 84 metrics of recovery. Tools are needed that can measure recovery at the local, regional and state levels to lead to best practices being adopted, Horney said. Valid and reliable measures of community disaster recovery – both those measured numerically and those impacting quality of life – are needed in order to be able to track recovery in different geographic locations, from different types of disasters and over time.

Through the Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool, an online database of these metrics, end-users can track the progress and quality of post-disaster recovery. The Tool, at, uses baseline metrics for a community and allows for updates during the post-disaster period to provide context for changes over time. Two pilot communities will be involved with the project to demonstrate the abilities of the Tool, and lessons learned from that work will be incorporated into marketing materials, a training module and a user guide for additional end-users.

This school year, Dr. Horney is working with students from the Texas A&M Mays Business School to improve the user experience and develop a marketing plan to encourage use of the website. Changes will include adding short video guides explaining the various functions available on the website.

The previous iteration of the Tool had 50 registered users; the goal under the current project is to have 250 communities using the site to determine what other adjustments are needed. Long-term, the goal is to provide a resource that can be leveraged to enhance the management and quality of disaster recovery at the local-level in cities and counties throughout the United States.

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Center welcomes Science & Engineering Workforce Development fellows

Two new graduate students have joined the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) as fellows.

This semester, Colleen Durfee and Darien Williams, both graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), began as Science & Engineering Workforce Development Fellows. The Department of Homeland Security-funded program aims to ensure that students are trained in homeland security-related science and engineering disciplines to maintain U.S. leadership in science and technology. Fellows will gain practical experience through paid summer internships, attendance at professional conferences and assistance with job placement within the homeland security fields upon graduation.

Colleen Durfee
Colleen Durfee

Students are also expected to pursue the CRC-based Certificate in Natural Hazards Resilience at UNC, led by CRC Director Dr. Gavin Smith. The 10-credit program, which began in the fall semester of 2015, focuses on the nexus between the threats and impacts of natural hazards and disasters on human settlements, including those exacerbated by climate change, and how individuals, organizations, communities, and larger systems of governance prepare for, respond to, mitigate against, recover from, and adapt to these events.  More information about the certificate can be found at

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