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The storm surge from Hurricane Florence made this boat and this home neighbors in North Carolina.
Katrina. Sandy. Maria. These and other hurricanes have devastated countless Americans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
predicts that in 2018, between four and seven hurricanes will form off
the Atlantic Coast, and the East Coast is recovering from the damage of
Hurricane Florence. After that? The hurricanes will keep coming thats
not a question. The question is to how to mitigate the damage when
these events inevitably take place.
There have been decades of research and lots of public programs and
public sector interventions, and yet disaster losses keep escalating,
says Rachel Davidson, a civil and environmental engineering
professor at the University of Delaware. 2017 was a particularly bad
year with hurricanes, but it wasnt an anomaly. Were just having
trouble getting ahead of the problem.
Fortunately, she has a few ideas. Under a new $1.99 million grant
from NSF, Davidson and Joseph Trainor, an associate professor of public policy and administration
at the University of Delaware, are working with Jamie Kruse, the THCAS
Distinguished Professor Economics at East Carolina University, and Linda
Nozick, professor and director of Civil and Environmental Engineering
at Cornell University, to uncover how communities do or dont
prepare for hurricanes. They will use this insight to develop a system
of mathematical models to help policymakers prepare for and respond to
natural disasters. By studying the perspectives of homeowners, insurers
and government agencies, they hope to develop a tool that optimizes the
needs of all stakeholders.
Instead of asking why hurricanes wreak havoc on communities, the
research team is asking: Why arent we developing engineered systems,
social systems and processes that shield us from the damage inflicted by
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Disasters are happening because
we, as humans, are failing to adapt to the realities of the physical
environment that were in, said Trainor. Human beings and their
processes are failing to adjust and find ways to live in harmony.
The team is taking a holistic and comprehensive approach to disaster
mitigation, using surveys, questionnaires, data on economic activity,
and other resources. The team will start with meteorological and
structural engineering data to predict where hurricanes will occur, how
strong they will be, and what kind of damage they will cause, but the
analysis wont end there. Many engineering models show the optimal
places to build from a structural perspective, but they dont include
other factors involved in human decision-making. Thats where the
research team based at the University of Delaware is doing something
If you start paying attention at the moment that the wind gets
strong and take everything as given at that moment, where the buildings
are, where all the people are, where the economic activity is, then you
have a limited number of options about what to do about it, said
Davidson. Instead, the team is asking: How did we get here?
They will combine engineering data with public policy and economic
analysis to study questions that have plagued disasters researchers,
such as: Why are so many of the nations flood plains, areas near bodies
of water that are susceptible to flooding during heavy rainfall,
occupied by buildings?
There are really important drivers, things going on in communities,
that put people in those places, said Trainor. Its not by chance that
most of the flood plains in most of the United States are developed.
There are things that are incentivizing that and reasons why were doing
it. The question is: Why arent we looking at those more?
Another question: Why do many people in high-risk areas choose not to
buy flood insurance or take other measures to protect their homes?
We have to understand why people make the decisions they do so that
we can create solutions that align with that natural decision-making
process, said Davidson. Where are the intervention points where
someones open to receiving information? What are the barriers that stop
them from doing something that might be in their best interest?
Researchers will combine engineering data with public policy and economic analysis to study the choices that communities and individuals make.
For example, some people might lack the funds to secure their windows
and doors. Or, perhaps they perceive this intervention as unnecessary
because they only plan to live in the house for a few years and assume
they wont encounter a disaster in that short time. However, a hurricane
might strike later, when the house has a new owner.
Sometimes the people who made the choice wont have to ultimately
face the consequences of their decision, and by the time people face the
consequences, they forget that somebody made a choice that led to
that, said Trainor. As the team develops a better understanding of how
these decisions are made, they will factor them into their models.
The models developed by the team could someday be used as a policy
analysis tool to design and evaluate interventions for disaster
Were developing a mathematical tool to try to understand what
policies would be most effective, and importantly, for each policy, what
would the consequences be to each stakeholder, insurers, homeowners,
and the government, said Davidson. Thats one important aspect of our
approach that sets it apart from others. Were explicitly representing
all the different players. None of those stakeholders can solve the
problem by themselves.
The tool could help to answer complex questions, such as whether
government agencies should offer grants to homeowners to encourage them
to strengthen their homes.
Right now, its not obvious if thats a good use of funds or not,
said Davidson. Is it better to wait and help them recover afterward? Or
if a grant is offered, how much should it be for? Is it enough to
influence homeowner behavior? Or is it better to focus on buyout
programs where the government will buy and demolish a home that
continuously floods over and over again.
The model could also address questions about the role of the insurance industry in disaster relief.
The team hopes that this work could help to save lives someday.
Were not there yet, but we do envision a platform where someone in
an office in an agency could log in to their computer, enter some
characteristics of their community or pull in data about the place that
theyre working, and click some buttons and say: What if I did this?
What if I did that? said Trainor. The idea is that at some point in
the future, this system would give them a set of answers that would help
them think through difficult choices theyre making in their
communities about how to reduce risk.
This project, which is supported by NSF grant 1830511 through the
Leading Engineering for Americas Prosperity, Health, and Infrastructure
(LEAP-HI) program, has been a long time in the making. Davidson and
Nozick have been studying hurricane risk management for more than a
decade. They found that engineering techniques alone could not solve the
problems they were facing, so several years ago, Trainor and Kruse
joined the effort.
We realized that the human behavior was very important in
understanding how people, in this case homeowners, make decisions in
managing risk, said Davidson. We realized that we needed more
The University of Delawares Disaster Research Center, which has more
than 50 years of history, connects faculty and students from different
disciplines to address these questions in a holistic manner.
When you work on complicated problems like this, you can only do it
for so long before you realize there is no way to effectively bring
science to public benefit without taking on complicated dimensions of
the issues, said Trainor. You cant make the world a better place with
science if youre not connected enough to different people.
The Disaster Research Center recently announced a cluster hire, inviting applications from talented scholars pursuing interesting questions related to disasters, hazards, and crisis.
Were excited to bring in more views, more perspectives, more people
who are poised to do cutting-edge research projects that deal with
important, complicated problems like this one does, said Trainor.
UD offers half a dozen programs for students to learn about disasters
from a variety of perspectives, from engineering to public policy.
There is no place that has the diversity of disaster-focused degrees
that we have here at the University of Delaware, said Trainor.
Article by Julie Stewart; photos by iStock