P!NPartners: Hazards Center research aids in disaster planning

North Carolina was hit hard in August 2011 by Hurricane Irene, including a boat repair facility in Bayboro, shown above. The Hazards Center at UNC-Chapel Hill had an important role in tracking Irene as it reached the coast. Photo courtesy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Center for the Study of Natural Hazards & Disasters at UNC-Chapel Hill (UNC Hazards Center) is a PLAN!T NOW partner and leading source of research on the impacts of disasters. For more information on the Center, visit http://hazardscenter.unc.edu.

The Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters has been engaged in a range of exciting activities in 2011, applying research to improve national resilience, initiating new projects, and refining the Center’s future direction, all while continuing to pursue an intense research agenda with our many colleagues and partners.

Established in 2008 as a research center headquartered at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Hazards Center seeks to advance the understanding of hazards resilience through rigorous interdisciplinary research; create translational models that move knowledge into practice; and develop education, extension and training methods that reflect the diversity and needs of targeted audiences. With a major grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the UNC Hazards Center also administers the research component of the Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence, a coalition of principal investigators located at 19 institutions throughout the United States. Hazards Center partners are pursuing innovative projects in disciplines as diverse as engineering, planning, coastal modeling, psychology, and economics, as well as projects in other fields that have direct bearing on the policy and practice of hazards management in its broadest context.

Applied Research

Hazards Center researchers have been heavily involved in the development of the ADCIRC/SWAN Coastal Circulation and Storm Surge Model, an advanced computer program that models and displays impacts of coastal storms. As Hurricane Irene approached the Atlantic coast in August 2011, the model was tremendously successful in forecasting useful information to help decision-makers effectively prepare for the impacts of the hurricane. In fact, based on predictions of the potential storm surge, wave, and flooding impacts from the model, the U.S. Coast Guard was able to relocate a Command Center and Incident Management Team. Although the original location of the Command Center flooded, the Coast Guard was able to operate effectively in response efforts without interruption.

The recently published book by Executive Director Gavin Smith, “Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: A Review of the United States Disaster Recovery Framework,” blends what we know about disaster recovery from the research literature and an analysis of existing practice to uncover both problems and recommended solutions for recovery planning. Findings of the book are being injected into a project with the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management to help develop an improved Disaster Recovery Plan. Similarly, Dr. Smith will be traveling to Vermont in December to participate in a workshop to assist Governor Peter Shumlin and his administration with their rebuilding efforts following the recent devastating flooding. Copies of the book can be ordered from Island Press.

As a partner in the North Carolina Sea Level Rise Risk Management Study, the Hazards Center has begun assessing program and policies within state and federal agencies that are influencing the ability for North Carolina to adapt to sea level rise and increased storm frequency. Using these findings and a risk assessment based on different scenarios of development and sea level rise, the Study will evaluate strategies to reduce risks associated with sea level rise.

Recent Events

This past year marked the middle of a six-year grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to administer the Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence. These Centers perform research and administer educational programs to provide tools, technologies and training to improve national resilience.

In May, the Hazards Center directors participated in a Midterm Review in Washington D.C. to discuss research progress and achievements and guide the future direction of the Center.

In October, the DHS Undersecretary Tara O’Toole visited the Hazards Center to discuss current research and efforts to get results into the hands of key stakeholders including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Coast Guard and state and local government officials. After the visit in Chapel Hill, N.C., O’Toole and several Hazards Center researchers attended a roundtable at Research Triangle Institute hosted by Congressman David Price (D-N.C.) featuring Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. Price emphasized the importance of research and development to the U.S. economy.

Future Activities

Looking ahead, the Center will continue to expand the scope and application of ongoing research, develop new research activities in critical areas, and adapt the direction of research as dictated by critical events, including major disasters such as Hurricane Irene. We look forward to an exciting year as our Center continues to mature, evolve, and expand our understanding of hazards and disasters and apply these findings in practice.