For 25 years, researchers at Texas A&M Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center have championed resilience, edging the focus of disaster planning away from its traditional realm in emergency management, in favor of helping communities and their leaders plan smarter — to avoid, absorb and otherwise recover from all kinds of disasters.
“In the past, nobody was thinking about how to reduce the risk of a natural disaster,” said Walter Gillis Peacock, director of the HRRC, the only research center in the United States dedicated to researching vulnerability reduction and long-term recovery.
“Our research shows we need to change how we are impacting our surroundings and start focusing on where we are building, how we are building, and how our activity modifies the natural environment,” said Peacock. “We need to reconsider what ‘normal’ development should be, and quit setting ourselves up by placing ourselves more at risk, more likely to experience a major natural disaster.
”Losses wrought from natural disasters result largely from planning decisions made regarding where and how human settlements are built — they do not simply happen, showed a study on the rising cost of floods led by HRRC fellow Samuel Brody, professor of urban planning.
The study, coauthored by HRRC fellows Himanshu Grover and Wesley Highfield, earned a best paper award from the Journal of the American Planning Association and provided scientific proof for a notion long held by planners.
Another long-held notion was put aside by an HRRC study that revealed how the 100-year floodplain, a longstanding metric for determining the chance of an area’s inundation by floodwaters, appears to be an inaccurate measure for predicting potential flood-related loss.
In this study, Brody, working with Highfield and Mike Lindell, professor of urban planning, reviewed a decade of data collected from counties adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico. They found that approximately half of the flood insurance claims originated from damage occurring outside of the 100-year flood plain. On average, the data revealed that damage occurred approximately 1,067 feet beyond the plain boundary.
Findings such as these, which help policymakers understand the consequences of land development in at-risk areas have been integrated into the HRRC’s Texas Coastal Communities Planning Atlas, a web-based geographic information system.
The interactive atlas, designed for nonexpert users, created by Brody, Peacock and HRRC faculty fellows Forster Ndubisi and Doug Wunneburger, is layered with scientific data and findings concerning physical, environmental, policy and social patterns along the coast. It includes data on hazard vulnerability, impact and recovery over several years and can isolate data for a particular community, neighborhood, or even a home.
The atlas also includes a “what-if” scenario, showing how development affects stormwater runoff in Galveston County and areas that are particularly susceptible to damage that might occur if a hurricane makes landfall.
Users of the public site can visualize one or many of the atlas’ information layers two counties deep along the Texas coast or zoom in to a specific location. Available data sets include hurricane storm surge zones, property values, elevation, dams, wetland permits and more.
By spotlighting socially vulnerable areas, the atlas can help emergency management planners focus mitigation resources where they are needed, reducing losses and strengthening community resilience.
A study by Shannon van Zandt, HRRC fellow and director of the Texas A&M Master of Urban Planning program, showed how social vulnerability mapping can reveal disparities that affect residents’ capacity to respond, mobilize resources and bounce back from natural or other types of disasters.
“Lower-income populations often live in low-lying areas and in lower-quality homes,” said Van Zandt, which exposes them to greater risk during a disaster. Vulnerable 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.”
Small business also plays a critical role in disaster recovery. In a post-Hurricane Ike study, Van Zandt and Yu Xiao, assistant professor of urban planning, found that it is important for relief efforts to include local businesses because, Xiao said, “households and businesses are bonded closely in post-disaster return. Enhancing the resilience of one will help with the recovery of the other.”
The study also found that small businesses tend to be more vulnerable because they often occupy buildings in inferior condition and are more likely to lack hazard management plans and resources to finance recovery.
The scope of HRRC’s research encompasses disasters of all kinds, including climate change, drought and their impact on future water resources.
A 2012 study led by George Rogers, professor of urban planning, focused on how the Texas drought of 2011 and competing demands for water affected businesses near Lake Conroe, which experienced a dramatic lake level drop. The study showed that increasing water needs in groundwater-dependent Montgomery County, Texas, one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, is depleting the groundwater supply faster than it’s being replenished, leaving the region solely dependent on the 20,100-acre lake, which is controlled, in part, by the city of Houston.
The study suggested that county water management authorities institute immediate, proactive water conservation measures as they seek to diversify their water resources and negotiate an authoritative voice in how the lake's water is used.
Decades of research in disaster response and hazard mitigation planning undertaken by HRRC research fellow Mike Lindell, professor of urban planning, inform his book, “Emergency Planning,” co-written with Ronald Perry, professor of public affairs at Arizona State University.
The book guides readers through the steps of developing emergency management plans, offering a number of strategies to help ensure success. It delves into the patterns of human disaster behavior, social psychology and communication as well as the basics of generic protective actions, planning concepts, implementation and action.
Another book, “Introduction to Emergency Management,” co-authored by Lindell and Carla Prater, senior lecturer of urban planning, cover everything from the social and environmental processes that generate hazards, to vulnerability analysis, hazard mitigation, emergency response and disaster recovery.
Responding to the need to coordinate disaster resilience, vulnerability and risk reduction research on a national scale, Peacock has spearheaded Creating a More Resilient America, a national initiative aimed at marshaling resources and collecting data relevant to major urban and rural areas subject to natural hazards.
“This is what Texas A&M’s College of Architecture has always focused on,” said Peacock, “linking our understandings of the physical, built and social environments to help ensure a sustainable and resilient future.”