The silver lining for natural disasters is that they provide a learning opportunity and a chance to reduce damages incurred in future catastrophes. With this objective, a five-year $4.1 million Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) funds a new disaster investigation center at the University of Washington, called the Post-Disaster Rapid Response Research Facility. Led by UW Civil & Environmental Engineering 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 CEE Associate Professor and principal investigator 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 UW’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, 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, prompting the evaluation of infrastructure performance through natural hazards simulation and modeling in order to develop more resilient communities.
Led by Wartman, the new center includes an interdisciplinary faculty team from UW and other universities. UW participants include co-investigator and Civil & Environmental Engineering Associate Professor Jeffrey Berman, Civil & Environmental Engineering Professor Laura Lowes, Human Centered Design & Engineering Senior Principal Research Scientist Scott Miles, Evans School of Public Policy Professor Ann Bostrom and Applied Physics Laboratory Senior Research Scientist Troy Tanner. The center’s leadership team also includes faculty from the University of Florida, Oregon State University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
The new 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.
“One key issue is predicting loss. We do that with computational models, but these require real-world data for calibration and validation,” said Berman. “Post-disaster data will help us improve the various models necessary for understanding natural disaster losses.”
The new center builds on UW 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 center will include state-of-the-art data collection tools, such as technology to gather geographic information, aerial photography, laser scanning equipment, seismological instruments, unmanned aircraft systems such as drones, and a 3D visualization lab for researchers to view and analyze images gathered during field work, allowing them to essentially see the disaster scene as if they were there. Additional tools will also be developed, specific to the data gathering objective, such as an app that allows people to provide feedback on damage incurred during earthquakes.
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.
Several CEE faculty are also involved in two related NHERI centers. Professor Laura Lowes and Professor Pedro Arduino are members of the management team for the cyberinfrastructure component, DesignSafe-CI, headquartered at the University of Texas at Austin. The Web-based data repository will be used by the various NHERI research teams to share and archive information, as well as provide tools to analyze and report research findings.
A second related center, the Computational Modeling and Simulation Center (SimCenter), is co-led by Lowes and includes faculty members Arduino, Michael Motley and Peter Mackenzie-Helnwein. Based at the University of California, Berkeley, the SimCenter’s goal is to transform natural hazards simulation in order to better assess regional risks. The ability to better simulate the damage caused by natural disasters will empower communities to make better-informed decisions about disaster preparation.
“Under NHERI, future discoveries will not only mitigate the impacts of earthquakes, but also will advance our ability to protect life and property from windstorms such as hurricanes and tornadoes,” said Joy Paushke, program director in NSF’s Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation.