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Natural Hazard Research at Notre Dame: Engineers Putting their Expertise to Work throughout a Busy Season

Nina Welding • DATE: November 8, 2017

Categories:  Press Release

As closely as researchers try to model and predict the paths of hurricanes and the wave and flooding events that accompany these and other strong storms, hindsight is 20/20, this country and others continue to sustain extraordinary and costly damage and disruption of lives due to these events. Post-disaster reconnaissance remains the most accurate means through which the structural engineering community can document the damage and create (or adjust) predictive models. This season, which will officially end on Nov. 30, has been especially busy for the Notre Dame researchers and their colleagues across the country who have been studying the effects of natural hazards on the built environment.

In a year that included Harvey, Jose, Maria, Nate, Ophelia and Irma — the most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record, teams of structural, wind and coastal engineers have been scrambling to document infrastructure performance and damage as they continue to seek ways to improve the construction standards and level of hurricane resistance of the country’s infrastructure.  “There are few areas of our common lives in society that are more front and center in the human consciousness than the study and possible mitigation of damage due to hurricanes,” says Peter Kilpatrick, the McCloskey Dean of Engineering at the University of Notre Dame. “I am proud of the College of Engineering’s efforts in this area.”

Most recently, a team of researchers from the University’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences participated in a sequence of Rapid Reconnaissance missions under a pair of grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in response to Harvey, Irma and Maria. Tracy Kijewski-Correa, the Leo E. and Patti Ruth Linbeck Associate Professor, is serving as the Structural Engineering Extreme Events Reconnaissance (STEER) coordinator of these ongoing field surveys, assembling teams of researchers from across the country including colleagues Alexandros Taflanidis, the Frank M. Freimann Collegiate Chair in Structural Engineering, and Andrew Kennedy, associate professor of civil & environmental engineering & earth sciences, to survey structural damage and coastal impacts.

While the response team to Harvey focused on Rockport and Port Aransas, Texas, and was led by Notre Dame, the group studying Irma grew to include universities across Florida [Florida Institute of Technology, Florida International University, University of Florida]. Coordinated by Notre Dame, these teams from these several universities catalogued damage along Florida’s Atlantic Coast, its Gulf Coast and the Keys. Ongoing reconnaissance related to Maria in Puerto Rico is operating out of the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, with secondary teams from the mainland currently traveling to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Their goal is to assess everything from the performance of structures to the effectiveness of current mitigation strategies, the impact of recurring storms and the effects of water intrusion.

Covering an extensive domestic footprint, the data obtained from this field work is collected through custom mobile applications, with data curation led by researchers at Auburn University. It will then be shared with other researchers through the NSF-supported Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure Data Depot.

Other ongoing research and recent funding received by Notre Dame faculty and related to the 2017 hurricane season includes:

• Additional NSF grants for post-hurricane reconnaissance in Haiti following Hurricane Matthew as well as a companion study to understand homeowner decision processes and attitudes toward recovery are under way. The field work is being led by College of Engineering faculty Kijewski-Correa and Alexandros Taflanidis in collaboration with Andrew Kennedy, associate professor of civil & environmental engineering & earth sciences and [from the University of Florida] David Prevatt, associate professor of civil and coastal engineering. They are focusing their efforts on post-disaster structural and coastal assessments.  An additional study will follow focusing on human response to the disasters and will include Debra Javeline, associate professor of political science and Anthropologist Karen Richman of the Institute for Latino Studies [both of Notre Dame].

• Funded by the Environmental Change Initiative at Notre Dame, a separate project has surveyed homeowners in North Carolina to evaluate their resilience and attitudes toward hurricanes and climate change. The project, which features a collaboration between Kijewski-Correa and Javeline, will continue through the end of the 2017 hurricane season.

• As a response to Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey has also funded a project to develop a next-generation decision support system for hurricanes. The study address the multiple challenges faced during Sandy, including developing a system to gather and evaluate real-time story data, hazards such as wind, waves and surge to be able to more effectively take preemptive action to help save lives and mitigate property damage. Kijewski-Correa, Taflanidis and Kennedy are working with the Notre Dame Center for Research Computing.

• Along with grants from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an additional NSF grant is enabling the study of storm surge and inundation, taking into account the variety of structures, materials and methods of construction in specific coastal areas. According to Kennedy, the project lead, he and collaborators at Oregon State University and the University of Southern California are working to account for the influence of the built environment and its structures during a storm, something that differs greatly from the “bare earth” framework currently used to calculate damage predictions. They believe this will allow more accurate predictions to specific regions or sections of a coastline.

• Co-investigators [from the University’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences] Kennedy; Associate Professor Diogo Bolster, the Frank M. Freimann Collegiate Chair in Hydrology; Damrongsak Wirasaet, research assistant professor; and [from North Carolina State University] Casey Dietrich, assistant professor of civil, construction, and environmental engineering, have received an NSF grant to advance the accuracy in forecasting storm surge. The goal of their four-year study is to develop improved storm surge models that incorporate fine-scale data and increase the accuracy and timing of forecasts so that policymakers, emergency management personnel and coastal residents have as much information as possible prior to a storm hitting land.

A single storm may still cause extensive damage, but with improved building codes and more accurate simulations and forecasts and other support systems being developed, states and their residents may be better prepared and protected from devastating losses of life and property.

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