2010 Year in Review: UNC Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters

Submitted by Anna K. Schwab, Program Manager

The Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters is a PLAN!T NOW ally that conducts research associated with natural hazards and translates those findings into practice.

The Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters experienced a busy year during 2010, hosting several conferences and workshops, initiating new projects and producing the Center’s first iteration of its Strategic Plan, 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 (DHS), the UNC Hazards Center also administers DIEM, the DHS Center of Excellence for Natural Disasters, Coastal Infrastructure and Emergency Management, a coalition of principal investigators located at 19 institutions throughout the United States. DIEM 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.

Applying Center Expertise to Address the Gulf Oil Spill

During 2010, several Center researchers demonstrated they are adept at addressing emerging issues, often with quick turnaround results during and immediately following a disaster. For example, Dr. Rick Luettich’s ability to generate computer models of storm surge and flooding was put to use during the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dr. Luettich and his colleagues were able to extend the high resolution models normally used during hurricanes to track oil in near-shore waters of the Gulf, providing valuable information to the U.S. Coast Guard and emergency managers in the Gulf region. While Luettich’s study focused on the physical impact of the spill, DIEM partner Dr. Mary Lou Kelley of Louisiana State University seized the opportunity to expand her current research into the psychological impact of disasters to look into the social-psychological effects that the BP Spill is having on Gulf Coast residents. Dr. Kelley has added to the data gathered following Hurricane Katrina to include information about how families in communities that are directly impacted by the spill are coping with its effects. Her work will result in improved evaluative tools that can help therapists and others provide services that meet the needs of disaster victims.

Expanding the Research Portfolio

As current projects continue to mature and investigators produce more robust findings, Hazards Center research has expanded to include the study of additional natural hazards while increasing the number of social science and planning research projects. Spinoff projects with potential for immediate and direct benefit to federal, state and local stakeholders include: a study of FEMA’s Community Rating System flood hazard reduction plans; an assessment of select state disaster recovery plans; and a joint project with the UNC Institute for the Environment and University of Maryland-based DHS Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism (START) to assess the social and physical dimensions of disaster resilience at the community level. Of particular value to the residents of North Carolina is the Center’s participation in the N.C. Sea Level Rise Risk Management. With funding from FEMA and the N.C. Division of Emergency Management, UNC researchers are currently assessing existing state policies, programs and regulations and their effect on the ability of the state to successfully adapt to rising sea levels. In the next phase of the project, investigators will recommend adaptation strategies the state may pursue to reduce the impacts of sea level rise on North Carolina coastal communities.

Workshops and Other Events

The Hazards Center hosted several exciting events during 2010, many of which were open to the public. In September, the Hazards Center partnered with the Center for the Study of the American South to convene “Hurricane Katrina Five Years Later: A Humanities Focused Observance.” Through an art exhibit, live music, storytelling and speakers from New Orleans and coastal Mississippi, participants and guests explored the ways individuals, communities and the Gulf Coast region were affected by Hurricane Katrina, how they survived the disaster and how they are preparing for a more resilient future. Photographs taken by Donn Young, a resident of New Orleans whose own studio was destroyed by the storm and who was commissioned to document the aftermath of the event, were the highlight of the three-day event. Many of the photographs are now on display at the Hazards Center headquarters located in Chapel Hill, N.C. A select number of the photographs will be available for viewing on the Hazards Center website in early 2011.

In October, Dr. Stephen Flynn, President of the Center for National Policy, was a guest of the Hazards Center and our partners at the Institute for Homeland Security at Duke University. Dr. Flynn gave a public lecture entitled “Katrina, Haiti, Deepwater Horizon: Building a More Resilient World.” Flynn also met with a group of graduate and undergraduate students over breakfast to talk about research and potential careers in the hazards management and disaster fields, followed by a roundtable event with invited guests from academia, emergency management professionals, and local and state officials to discuss the current state of security building and potential future directions in applied hazards research.

In November, the Hazards Center convened a workshop on Disaster Recovery, in partnership with the Public Entity Risk Institute and California Polytechnic State University. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, hazards scholars from across the United States met to develop a working theory of disaster recovery. Published proceedings of the Disaster Recovery Workshop released in spring 2011, will define the model, propose a research agenda and identify possible sources of funding to test the theory.

The Way Forward

Looking ahead to 2011, the Center will move forward in accordance with the new strategic plan, which clarified our mission and purpose, and will help guide progress across both research and administrative dimensions. This will be accomplished through: 1) strategic expansion of research activities in critical areas (e.g., climate change-related work); 2) leveraged expansion of ongoing research activities to expand the scope and application of results, tools and techniques; and 3) opportunistic expansion of research activities as dictated by critical events, including major disasters. We look forward to an exciting year as our center continues to mature, evolve, and expand our understanding of natural hazards and disasters and apply these research findings in practice.

Image: Photos like this of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward at sunrise from Donn Young were featured at the “Hurricane Katrina Five Years Later” event hosted by the UNC Hazards Center. Photo courtesy of Donn Young/UNC Hazards Center.