Community resilience is essence of Texas A&M hazard research

A year packed with death and destruction saw Hurricane Sandy slam the U.S. East Coast, tornadoes dance across mid-America, fires ravage the mountain states and a horrific chemical explosion wreck a small Texas town.

Though natural and man-made disasters like these are inevitable, scientists at the Texas A&M College of Architecture are working on ways to minimize their impact, hasten recovery and gain valuable insight from the process.

Community resilience, the capacity of a population to sustain and quickly recover from disasters, has long been at the crux of research undertaken by faculty at the college's Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center and the recently established Institute for Sustainable Coastal Communities, a college partnership with Texas A&M University at Galveston.

“Our research focuses on showing how we can increase resilience to natural and technological hazards through how we build and where we build,” said Walter Gillis Peacock, HRRC director and professor of urban planning.

There's a tendency, for instance, for developers to build homes in naturally beautiful areas like forests and near beaches and rivers, which are typically vulnerable to natural hazards like fires and floods.

"When we put ourselves in harms way through development decisions, we actually translate a hazard into a disaster by getting in its way," explained Shannon Van Zandt, associate professor of urban planning. "Our ability to make better decisions, to learn from past experiences, to build smarter, in better places, to better standards and mitigate risks — that's what resilience is about."

Part of resilience is also the social capacity of a community to respond:
Hear Shannon Van Zandt audio quote

That "we must enhance our resilience … prepare for, withstand and rapidly recover from disruption,” is also part of the U.S. government's National Security Strategy, which outlines major national security concerns and the president's plans for dealing with them. The president's plan places disaster resilience on par with resilience to terrorism, large-scale cyber attacks and pandemics.

Among the latest resiliency-related projects under way at the HRRC are two National Science Foundation-funded studies, one investigating post-Hurricane Sandy business recovery in New York City, and another comparing and contrasting two recent Texas disasters — one man-made, the April 17, 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West; one natural, a May 15, 2013 tornado that hit Granbury.


Comparing natural and man-made disaster recovery

The two similar Texas towns, located approximately 80 miles apart, offer a rare opportunity to investigate how recovery from a man-made disaster differs from a natural disaster. The Granbury tornado, which peaked at 180 mph, killed six, injured dozens and laid waste to 110 homes, leaving only the foundations of some. The explosion in West killed 15 people, injured 200 and caused as much as $100 million damage.

Due to the ephemeral, or perishable nature of the data to be collected in West and Granbury, the NSF issued a $40,000 rapid response research grant to expedite the discovery process.

"By rapidly deploying field teams," said Michelle Meyer, an HRRC post-doctoral researcher and principal investigator on the study, "we will be able to capture quickly evolving data providing unique comparisons between the responses to both disasters and gain a better understanding of the differences in early post-disaster recovery efforts at the household and community levels.”

The data should show whether different recovery processes emerge in the two towns, and if decisions made result in different outcomes.


Hurricane Sandy study

The Hurricane Sandy study, led by Yu Xiao, assistant professor of urban planning, aims to identify factors affecting the recovery of three New York City boroughs hit hard by the record-breaking October 2012 storm — Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Using in integrated approach, the researchers will examine the interdependence of post-disaster decisions made by households and businesses, how disaster aid policies influence these decisions, and how these relationships change over time.

This understanding, she said, is critical to effective policy design and implementation and can greatly improve long-run community resiliency to natural disasters.

The study will also examine factors that lead to businesses reopening: whether they reopen when there's enough demand for their products or services, an adequate labor pool, or simply because of tradition.

Researchers from Texas Southern University and Stony Brook University on Long Island in New York are contributing to this three-year, $390,000 NSF project.


Resiliency research at the College of Architecture

Findings from the Granbury/West and Hurricane Sandy research will join a lengthy list of recent resiliency-related discoveries uncovered by HRRC and ISCC research teams. For example, Texas A&M hazard researchers have found that:

  • Relief efforts after a natural disaster should include local businesses in addition to households, since the resilience of one helps with the recovery of the other;
  • Increased hazard mitigation planning by local governmental agencies along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts has not significantly reduced their respective communities’ vulnerability to disasters;
  • The 100-year floodplain, a longstanding metric for determining an area’s inundation by flood waters, can be an inaccurate measure for predicting potential flood-related loss;
  • Deadly chemical plant disasters such as a 2008 blast in West Virginia can be mitigated by implementing proven safety protocols;
  • Building in areas of Texas inappropriate for development is increasing the state’s vulnerability to hurricane damage;
  • Communities that elevate structures above project flood levels save almost $1 billion a year in expected flood damage, while those protecting open space in floodplains save an average of $547,000 per year;
  • Emergency management planners could reduce losses and strengthen community resilience by mapping socially vulnerable areas and focusing hazard mitigation efforts where they are most needed;
  • “Low-lying areas tend to hold lower-income populations housed in lower-quality homes exposed to greater risk during a disaster. These populations are less likely to have access to information and resources enabling them to anticipate and respond to threats, yet they are more often than not the groups who most need to heed warnings to evacuate or seek shelter.”


HRRC champions planning research network

The HRRC is also leading an effort to form a nationwide network for coordinating disaster resilience, vulnerability and risk reduction research.

Tentatively named "Creating a More Resilient America," the network would provide long term, systematic data collection for analysis and modeling of vulnerability and resiliency through time via a set of research nodes focused on areas subject to natural hazards, such as earthquakes, flooding, fires, hurricanes and tornadoes.


Coastal Atlas aids coastal planning, development

The HRRC also strives to educate the public about resiliency through its Coastal Communities Planning Atlas, which allows users to visualize the resiliency of the Texas coastline with a series of interactive, geographic information system-based maps.

Users can easily add any of dozens of layers that show hurricane surge zones, wetlands, demographic information, property values, and much more, in a two-county deep area all along the Texas coast.

“Whether you’re a mayor, planner, or resident on the coast, you can view, interact with data and predict impacts of development on coastal areas,” said Sam Brody, a professor of urban planning and director of the Institute for Sustainable Coastal Communities. “You can look at multiple layers of information at the same time and interact with it.”

The center works with many partners to continually update the atlas with new functionality and updated information, including the state’s coastal management program and general land office, Texas A&M University at Galveston, and the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Texas A&M Bush School of Government and Public Service.

posted July 15, 2013