Peacock, top disaster researchers planning hazard research network

“… this is a change that Texas A&M’s College of Architecture has always focused on — linking our understandings of the physical, built, and social environments to help ensure a sustainable and resilient future.”

— Walter Gillis Peacock
— HRRC director

Momentum is mounting for the creation of the first ever, U.S. National Science Foundation-funded network of researchers dedicated to investigating disaster resilience, vulnerability and risk reduction, said Walter Gillis Peacock, director of Texas A&M’s Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center and champion of the interdisciplinary network proposal.

Peacock led a June 1-2, 2011 meeting at the NSF headquarters in Arlington, Va., attended by a diverse field of leaders from numerous disciplines — hazard researchers, sociologists, engineers, planners, architects, anthropologists, economists, geographers and seismologists — eagerly discussing details of the proposed network, tentatively named Creating a More Resilient America.

With almost every new major natural disaster event, said CAMRA organizers, the United States sets yet another new record for disaster losses, mimicking a much more dramatic worldwide trend.

Population growth, they said, is increasingly occurring in areas highly vulnerable to flooding, hurricanes or earthquakes. This expansion is often accompanied by the destruction of hazard mitigating systems such as wetlands and other important environmental resources.

Peacock said conference attendees want the NSF to fund an initial set of research nodes, each focused on a major urban and rural area that is subject to natural hazards such as flooding, hurricanes and earthquakes. These groups would provide regional resiliency and vulnerability research that integrates the physical, social and engineering sciences.

In addition to long-term, systematic data collection for analysis and modeling of vulnerability and resiliency through time, CAMRA advocates said nodes strategically located in regions subject to disasters would pre-position the research network to undertake a variety of post-event studies on a longitudinal basis, which is critical for a fuller understanding of resiliency. The network, they added, could also develop common measurement protocols, instruments and data collection strategies to promote comparative research across locations. 

While a definitive number of initial grants to seed the CAMRA initiative was not suggested at the conference, organizers discussed as many as nine fundable concepts. In some sense, Peacock said, these would be proof-of-concept grants — projects funded for 2-3 years to show how interdisciplinary teams could develop integrated resiliency models for large, complex urban systems.

Peacock initially championed the interdisciplinary resiliency network idea at a 2008 HRRC gathering attended by leading disaster researchers whose work is funded by the NSF and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The concept was then dubbed the Resiliency and Vulnerability Observatory Network, or RAVON.

Word of the network’s planning spread quickly, Peacock said, attracting the attention of other divisions in the NSF, including geosciences, engineering, and social, behavioral and economic sciences.

“The concept got a lot of attention in the broader scientific community and in NSF itself — not to mention the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and USGS,” said Peacock. “The ideas have also begun to appear in National Academies of Science reports for engineering related to earthquake science. The simple fact is that the initial RAVON concept gained a following.”

Part of that following stems directly from Peacock’s promoting of the network at scientific venues across the nation, including appearances at the White House Conference Center in Washington, D.C. before a presidential committee on disaster reduction, the National Academies’ sustainability forum, the United States Geological Survey Headquarters, the International Research Committee of Disasters Researchers, and many more.

Peacock said he and his fellow CAMRA organizers are hoping that the outcome of these efforts, which have taken place over several years, will change the nature of science focused on creating more resilient urban communities.

The NSF, he added, is likely to issue a request for proposal for phase one of the establishment of CAMRA sites, followed by planning for the network’s governance.

“What is most interesting is that this is a change that Texas A&M’s College of Architecture has always focused on — linking our understandings of the physical, built, and social environments to help ensure a sustainable and resilient future,” he said.

Peacock said he and his fellow CAMRA organizers are hoping that the outcome of these efforts, which have taken place over several years, will change the nature of science focused on creating more resilient urban communities.

posted August 15, 2011