Disaster Data: $4 Million NSF Grant Funds New CEE-Led Center for Post-Disaster Data Collection

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The new center builds on associate professor Joe Wartman’s post-disaster data collection expertise, including leading a team of NSF-sponsored researchers to collect data following the 2014 Oso landslide, the deadliest in the history of the United States. Here, Wartman (left) reviews field notes on observations made during the landslide investigation.

By Brooke Fisher

It may come as a surprise, but natural disasters do have a silver lining. They provide a learning opportunity and a chance to reduce damages incurred in future catastrophes. With this objective, the UW has received a five-year, $4.1 million Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund a new disaster investigation center, the Post-Disaster Rapid Response Research Facility. Led by Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) faculty, the center will enable the collection, assessment and archiving of high-quality data in the aftermath of disasters, which will be used to develop more resilient communities.

“While we cannot prevent natural hazards from striking, we can minimize the likelihood that these will become disasters,” said principal investigator and associate professor Joe Wartman. “By collecting high quality data in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, we can begin to understand what went wrong and why. This allows us to better prepare and take precautionary measures in advance of future events.”

Located in CEE, the new center will headquarter data collection in the aftermath of two types of natural disasters: wind hazards, such as tornadoes and coastal storms, and earthquakes, which includes earthquake-induced tsunamis. The shared-use facility will be open to UW researchers as well as the broader research community across the nation. The center will offer not only tools and data collection equipment, but ongoing support and guidance for research teams deploying to disaster sites. Data will be carefully collected, stored and shared as open-source data with the broader research community.


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The UW faculty team tests an Unmanned Ariel System, or drone, that will be used for aerial reconnaissance.


Led by Wartman, the new center is managed by an interdisciplinary team and includes CEE faculty Jeffrey Berman and Laura Lowes, along with researchers from the University of Florida, Oregon State University and Virginia Tech.

The center comes at a time when total losses from natural disasters are increasing yearly. With the concentration of urban communities, natural disasters make cities increasingly vulnerable. The damage incurred world-wide from natural disasters that occurred between 1980-2014 is estimated at $4.2 trillion, according to World Bank. Within this timeframe, losses escalated rapidly, starting at about $50 billion per year in the 1980s and reaching almost $200 billion by 2014.

The center builds on CEE faculty’s collective expertise with post-disaster data collection and analysis. Wartman led a team of NSF-sponsored researchers to collect data and document conditions following the 2014 Oso Landslide, the deadliest landslide in the history of the United States, and also gathered data in the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Berman’s current work includes NSF-funded research to develop new seismic load resisting systems to minimize post-earthquake repair costs and investigating impacts of a Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake on the Pacific Northwest.

The new center is part of a larger $19 million NHERI investment that follows an earlier $40 million NHERI grant, announced in September 2015, which funds a network of shared research centers and resources at various universities across the nation. The overall objective is to enhance the resilience of buildings, tunnels, waterways, communication and energy systems, and more, in order to lessen the vulnerability of communities during natural disasters.

Learn more about NHERI funding and projects.

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The new center will use state-of-the-art laser equipment to provide detailed scans such as this one, which shows a home damaged by rockfall during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. The ultra-high resolution helps investigators better understand factors that enhance the resiliency of homes.

Front and Center

Several CEE faculty members are involved in two related NHERI centers:
Cyberinfrastructure Center
A Web-based data repository called DesignSafe-CI will allow the various NHERI research teams to share and archive information. Headquartered at the University of Texas at Austin, Professors Laura Lowes and Pedro Arduino are members of the management team.
Computational Modeling and Simulation Center
The Computational Modeling and Simulation Center’s goal is to advance natural hazards simulation. Based at the University of California, Berkeley, the center is co-led by Professor Laura Lowes and includes faculty members Pedro Arduino, Michael Motley and Peter Mackenzie-Helnwein.

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