Archive for September, 2018

Interdisciplinary Data

This week in class we listened to an interdisciplinary panel of researchers who look at hazards and their impacts. There were different approaches to defining and understanding hazards and their impacts. The similarities and differences in these approaches have the potential to impact collaboration across disciplines when it comes to discussing disaster resilience and risk management.

Dr. Cowell researches how communities, cities and regions prepare for disasters, and focuses on economic development, looking at how disasters change the economic base. She was drawn to this research because of her experience with threats to the local economy in her hometown while growing up. For her research data collection consists of using interviews, surveys and focus groups to learn about communities ability to create places where people want to invest, work, and live in, as well as people’s connections to institutions.

Dr. Zobel looks at the disaster resilience triangle, and initial, short term and long term impacts, focusing on supply chains. He looks at the different aspects of people exchanging goods or services, with an emphasis on commercial and humanitarian supply chains. such as who to give what and when, and the logistics of how to get it there. He looks at the organizational and economic impacts that supply chains have. For him data collection consists of interviews, surveys, scenario  reactions, empirical data, IT, twitter, 311, event studies for companies and regression models.

Dr. Zhang looks at the long term impacts, when media coverage of the effected region has ended. He looks at how people are recovering, with regard to housing, reconstruction, and the hazard’s impact on the capacity of the community to develop plans. He investigates the time compression concept where conflicts in decision making are amplified when the time to make them is compressed, such as shopping at Kroger before a large storm when supplies are quickly being grabbed from the shelves. For him primary data collection includes surveying or interviewing homeowners, with secondary data being obtained from tax office data or property values.

Dr. Irish looks at the direct damage of hazards with regards to floods from storm surges, as well as how hazards can impact the potential to evacuate. She studies beach dune erosion, barrier island overwash and breaching. She points out that some of the things she studies, such as erosion are their own hazard caused by another hazard, so she essentially studies cascading hazards. Her goal is to help people be more aware and put themselves in less danger. For her data collection consists of computational models to simulate real world events, physical measurements she takes in the field, some in field inferences made that access building damage, laboratory work, LiDAR and photos.

While all of these researches look at hazards, they all look at different aspects of hazards, at different times with reference to the hazard. Since each researcher focuses on different parts of hazards, they might feel like the other researchers don’t have much to add to their individual research. However, together these researchers contribute to a larger body of knowledge about hazards, with multiple different ways to assess hazards. While Dr. Cowell might not have much to add if working with Dr. Irish on assessing the coastal damage from a storm surge, and Dr. Irish might not have much to add to evaluating the storm’s impacts to the economic base, together they both contribute to evaluating the hazard and the recovery. It’s really important that they acknowledge their different areas of expertise and work together to use their individual skills to contribute to the larger picture of protecting and educating the public- something they both said was their goal and their personal motivation for research. It’s also important that these interdisciplinary teams work together and communicate clearly with each other what each individual’s definitions and understandings of hazards are, what kind of data they need to work with, and how each individual will use their background to contribute to the team.

Forgiveness is not the New Black


Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday where we ask for forgiveness for our sins. I’ve been thinking a lot about the #MeToo movement and as a feminist, ever since it came out, I’ve been feeling like it’s about time. But something that I’ve been wondering recently is, how can we best as a society help victims, and attackers, to move forward, and should we as a society allow attackers to do so?

With the Supreme Court hearing, the idea of sexual assault has not been far from anyone’s minds recently. Just scrolling through the internet brings the topic to attention:

From addressing double standards our society holds:





To directly discussing the most recent allegations:


To straight up trolls:

It all circles back to:

Now that sexual assault and harassment have been brought to the forefront of public attention, So What? Our Justice system is practically a joke, especially on college campuses, with few cases going to trial and fewer resulting in punishment of some kind for the perpetrator.

More importantly, now that the #MeToo movement has helped women to come forward What Now? How can we support victims to allow them to recover? But also how can we make it so that perpetrators are less likely to commit a similar crime again?

As a society, our justice system needs an overhaul. From Brock Turner going free in 3 months, while non-violent offenders serve years behind bars for everything from carrying a suitcase full of cash to drug possession offenses and theft. But even those that serve time, So What? Are they any less likely to commit crime?- the statistics would say that’s doubtful, with our prison system acting like a revolving door with inmates moving in and out. With ~90% of rapes committed by repeat rapists, with regards to those who actually serve time I’m not reassured by the fact that the prison system does little to rehabilitate or change prisoners. Besides getting rapists off the streets, there’s not much benefit to sending them to jail, since most people come out more with more psychological issues than they had to begin with. I’m not saying that people can’t change or should be defined by one moment for the rest of their life. But we need to actively help people to change and move forward.

The problem is how can we pursue rehabilitation without forgiveness? And is forgiveness necessary for rehabilitation? Is the reason our prison system does little to rehabilitate inmates because, as a society we don’t wish to forgive these people, and therefore wish to condemn them with records and restricted rights and opportunities even after they’ve served time? We like to forget about prisoners, and even allow governments not to evacuate them during natural disasters, but is this marginal treatment of our prisoners really just perpetuating a system of reoccurring crime? Or is it that we feel that we protect victims by shutting these criminals away? Is choosing not to rehabilitate criminals part of a false sense of honoring victims?

So far our justice system prefers orange to forgiveness, but maybe there’s away we could actually use prison to make these prisoners better people while having them serve their time and punishment. But we can’t forgive people who don’t admit guilt or accept consequences. As for what society should do about men with credible allegations of sexual assault brought against them, like Harvey Weinstein, I’m rather sick of people who clearly broke the law solely getting fired or not being allowed to make a movie, and not paying any legal consequences. On the other hand simple sexual harassment cases might really only need to cause someone to lose their job. Before we can hope to move forward as a society, the punishment must fit the crime, but its equally important that the punishment involves some type of retribution or rehabilitation.

What do you think? Would reforming the prison system while being tougher on convicting sexual assaulters reduce sexual violence? Is there no hope for the system? Or should we be tougher on criminals to deter them from committing crimes in the first place? Do you think that the #MeToo movement will have a lasting impact on how we treat sexual assault cases, and who we put in positions of power in our society? Is there a chance for forgiveness, or at least rehabilitation, to become the new black?

-You know you love me. xoxo Ethics Girl

Just Say No to the War on Science

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts” Feyman 1999

I beg to differ. While Feyman meant his words to guard against confirmation bias, believing in the ignorance of experts now days has devolved into the War on Science. The political aisle has been split by people who trust in facts and people who trust in emotions as fact. Just check out this clip of Newt Gingrich in 2016 declaring what people feel is a fact is more important than the validity of the fact itself. (Excuse the wrong headline from CNN)

The fact that politicians would rather go with how people feel than the statisticians tells you that the general population has stopped believing in experts- the very thing Feyman declared as the definition of science. Well Feyman you’re an expert and you’re wrong, science is not a belief, its a practice, and ignorance is nothing to be celebrated by a field which desires to constantly learn more about the universe. Science is not a belief system, or if you wish to define it as a belief system, it is one that’s only tenant is to believe nothing and prove everything.

Saying that one believes in science and fact is really saying one believes in the practice of using logical reasoning rather than belief to come to conclusions. Science is about actions and results, hence it is not something to believe, rather it is something that is practiced by people who adhere to the scientific principles of observation and deduction.

The fact that a Presidential Candidate had to say that she, “believed in science” as if it was part of her platform, such as ” I believe love is love” or “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” was frankly ridiculous and a sad signal of the state of our society. Clinton said it as a joke and jab at her opponent for his statement, “Climate change is a hoax by the Chinese,” but in retrospect, her 2016 statement only seems to have given fuel to the war on science by more clearly drawing the line and identifying “believers” in science and doubters.

“But even if Clinton understands how silly it is to conflate belief in science with belief in the products of the scientific method, her line is still problematic. Clinton’s target is Donald Trump, who has claimed that climate change is a hoax—that the evidence for it isn’t real, or true. But Republicans could hear her tone as mocking not their candidate, but them.”-

There are people who, Feyman included, get confused by the difference between believing in the use of the scientific method, and believing in science as a belief system itself. The line can be difficult to draw when it comes to literary analysis of quotes, especially those that may have been taken out of context. Maybe when Feyman wrote his words the War on Science was not as prevalent in society, or the connotation of what he was attempting to say “that science continually disproves experts as technology advances and experiments can be more specific and controlled,” would have been more understood. But now his statement conflates the scientific method with a belief system and discredits experts who dedicate their lives to following the scientific method.

A better way to write what Feyman wanted to say would be “Science is the practice of questioning experts and their conclusions.” 

We as scientists need to be careful to do our part to present a united front against the War on Science. We cannot fall into this rhetoric that science is something you can believe in or not believe in, or we play right into the war by creating two sides. We need to present to the public the truth about science- that it is a method used for discovery and that its findings can support or reject a hypothesis, or theory about how the universe works. The next time someone asks if you “believe in climate change,” engage them in a conversation that addresses the fallacy in their initial question.

For example: “I don’t believe in climate change, as it is not something that you can believe in, for instance do you believe in the chance of rain? Rain, just like climate change, is a natural event that happens. I accept the fact that numerous studies have found evidence to support that the climate is changing, so I would say it is highly likely that the climate is changing and that we should act to prepare ourselves. Just like the weather report says 80% chance of rain tomorrow, I plan to bring my umbrella, so that should I experience rain I won’t get soaked.”

Maybe that’s too long of a monologue to say, but you get the point. The next time someone asks if you believe in a product of the scientific method, make it clear to them that you believe in adhering to the scientific method and its ability to produce statistically likely results. And that one cannot believe in science, or climate change anymore than one can believe in the sky, however one can observe that the sky looks blue, and therefore that person can believe that the sky is blue.

And when it comes to giving fuel to the War on Science:

What do you guys think we can do to end the War on Science? How would you engage in a discussion with a “non-believer”? What are your thoughts on rhetoric?

-You know you love me. xoxo Ethics Girl


Disaster Recovery Case Discussion: After the Avengers saved the CITY

The CITY was hit by both a flood and an earthquake! The Avengers came and saved all the people and animals, and took care of all short term recovery issues.

Thanks so much Avengers!

Our superhero friends have left the CITY in charge of rebuilding and long-term recovery. The CITY has outlined two objectives for long-term disaster resilience:

  1. keep the floodplain as open space
  2. rebuild condominiums with current seismic codes.

Additionally the CITY has asked for the following report that considers characteristics of disaster recovery:

Both of the neighborhoods that compose the CITY have land that falls within the 50 year (or 2%) flood plain. The land that can be developed in neighborhood A has shrunk from 2614 m^2 to 1514 m^2, or decreased by 42%. The land that can be developed in neighborhood B has shrunk from 3840 m^2 to 1707 m^2, or by 56%. The entire CITY is still vulnerable to seismic risk, and as such all rebuilding projects will need to be built to seismic codes. There are many stakeholders that will need to be involved in order for these two hazard risks to be addressed by the CITY.

Stakeholders that need to be involved in the recovery planning and reconstruction process include:

  • the former residents of each neighborhood
    • Neighborhood A was middle class with 66 households, some of these former residents may wish to return, but some may have the opportunity to move elsewhere.
    • Neighborhood B was a retirement community with 72 households, many of these former residents may not have anywhere else to go as they likely have put their life savings into their residences in the retirement community.
    • Residents from both neighborhoods will likely be interested in receiving compensation for their lost/damaged property from insurance companies and/or buyouts/bailouts from the government of CITY.
    • Doing the math not every resident who wants to may be able to return when the CITY rebuilds the neighborhoods. Out of Neighborhood A which had 66 households, rebuilding and keeping the floodplain uninhabited will mean only ~38 households can return. Neighborhood B which had 72 households, rebuilding and keeping the floodplain uninhabited will mean only ~31 households can return. There may be a conflict between the residents over who gets to return, and how it should be decided who returns.
  • Construction companies and businesses of CITY will be interested in rebuilding the neighborhoods for profit. Construction companies/businesses may be interested in building more expensive or larger structures to replace what was lost, rather than smaller and more affordable structures that optimize the number of households that can return.
  • CITY government officials and politicians will desire to make as many of their voters as possible happy.  Politicians could have ties to businesses and want to please businesses by helping them get profits. Government officials  and politicians will likely want to make as many households happy as possible by allowing them to return.
  • CITY planners, Engineers, and Scientists working for the CITY government will be interested in rebuilding in a scientifically safe and ethical way as to benefit the most constituents. This desire to benefit the most households could conflict with business desires to make a profit. Some scientists and engineers may feel that the assessment of allowing residents to return outside the 50 yr flood plain, but perhaps within the 100 yr flood plain is a flawed decision. 50 yr floods have a 2% chance of occurring in any given year, and 100 yr floods have a 1% chance of occurring in any given year, or a 1/4 chance of occurring within a 30 year time period. Some CITY scientists and engineers may believe that Neighborhoods A and B should not be rebuilt if they fall within the 100 yr flood plain, rather than using the 50 yr flood plain as a marker. This may conflict with CITY planners and government officials desire to rebuild as much as possible. Additionally, CITY planners and government officials/ politicians may be upset to hear that mathematically not every household will be able to return. CITY planners may wish to suggest a government buyout of homes in properties that lie within the floodplain and cannot be rebuilt. Buybacks can be controversial politically and it is likely that businesses may have objections if they feel they are not benefited.

As consultants we have come up with suggestions that we feel can please most stakeholders in some way:

  1. Since not every household will be able to return create a lottery that households which desire to return can enter, as well as a buyout program for those not returning to neighborhoods A and B. The lottery should take into account how much the home was worth prior to destruction and how much the government buy back value of the property would be, giving preference to letting those with lower buy back values return to the rebuilt neighbors of A and B. This preference given will mean that former neighborhood B residents will comprise the majority of the households that will return. This will actually benefit the CITY economy since those with lower property values are unlikely to be able to afford to buy a newer home in CITY, but will let them stay as members of the retirement community, which is essential to CITY’s image and businesses which cater to retired populations. The CITY should explore the possibility of merging the two neighborhoods, though community meetings should be held to determine if residents would prefer the neighborhoods to be rebuilt separately.
  2. The buyout program will take into account how much the property was originally worth, and assuming there is more develop-able land in CITY, an extra 15-20% incentive should be added to the value households receive which sign a contract promising to buy in new neighbors built elsewhere in CITY.  This should please CITY businesses and construction companies, as well as the higher property value households (primarily from neighborhood A) who wish to still live in CITY, but would be happy to leave the neighborhood with a bit of government assistance. Although CITY government will be giving 15-20% more than the assigned buyout value to these households this money will stay within the CITY community and spur economic and infrastructure growth as new neighborhoods develop in CITY suburbs.





Press Conference Reflection: Out of Work Actress Decides to Become Environmental Engineer

I was excited about the idea of the press conference assignment, as I love drama and had thought it was going to be primarily an acting assignment. What I envisioned when first given the assignment via email was a mix between improv theatre, based on a character sketch, and a play in that we somewhat had a plot to follow. Some of this plot stemmed from the assignment and the fact that we were given the opportunity to plan as a team how we would act in the press conference. But the other way a “plot” materialized for me was that we had more knowledge than our characters actually had, we knew their future and already thought of them as villains.

I was actually kinda disappointed when I was assigned Lynette Stokes, since I had wanted to play “the really bad guy”. From my press packet it seemed like this Lynette Stokes from the DOH was fairly innocent. She had helped to send WASA pamphlet information meant for the public, but in that very pamphlet lead levels were reported as complying with the EPA and LCR’s LAL limits. There was a phone call that she knew about happening which triggered the DOH to help WASA make the pamphlet, but she was not part of the phone call nor did she have a transcript. So from these two facts it was a possibility that- to her knowledge- WASA and WAD were meeting all LCR requirements and that there was not a lead in water problem in 2002/2003. Stokes knew there had been questions raised about lead service lines, and that the DOH’s Jerusalem Bekele had reached out and gotten a response from WASA basically describing the current lead service line replacement program and being told it was not likely to change. The only somewhat damming fact Stokes knew (from the press packet) was that she was copied on an email, encouraging but also inquiring about the validity of only counting homes with lead pipes and discarding homes with no lead pipes, but lead solder, as at risk. From my background of engineering and following the Flint MI crisis, I knew that the homes with lead solder should be included in the “at risk” category, but from my press packet I was not sure if Lynette Stokes’s character would have known. I decided to do some sleuth work to find out what kind of background, intelligence, and characteristics, such as initiative or integrity, my interpretation of Lynette Stokes in 2004 should have. By this time I had been informed that I was not actually playing Lynette Stokes herself as she might have acted, but that I was deciding how I wanted the character of someone with Lynette Stokes knowledge (press packet) position (DOH) and background (doctor and ?) to react at the press conference. While I realized I was not obligated to be playing her character I was interested enough by this confusing character sketch I’d been given: told all the press conference players were unethical, ruthless, incompetent villains who purposefully put the public at risk from Dr. Edwards’ background speech, but also handed a packet specifically about this person Lynette Stokes, who, from my interpretation seemed, if not entirely innocent, certainly not guilty of purposefully covering up a lead in city water problem.

As it turned out from my internet sleuthing, she wasn’t guilty, at least not yet…At the time of the press conference it seemed (from what Dr. Edwards could later prove) that she may not have known about, or acted to cover up, the lead crisis until after the press conference happened. But, I learned, she would go on to lie about the blood tests of children with high lead levels. (Yes a Doctor, PhD, and MPH, falsified real people’s blood tests and STILL IN 2018, is Chief at the DC Department of Health Environmental Health Administration!!) See . So I was blown, why was I given all this information that set me up to seem innocent, if not willfully ignorant? And how should I act now at the press conference knowing that in the future this person would join the Dark side?

I decided that just because I knew Lynette Stokes would become a bad guy didn’t actually effect how I was planning to portray her: as the most out of the know of the agencies, mostly innocent-perhaps not even knowing of the problem until the Post article came out, and concerned about reminding people of lead in dust and soil and keeping CDC funding. It didn’t occur to me that she could be the hero of the group claiming the DOH tried to question WASA to be tough on the lead service line replacement program and being thwarted. Instead I just said the DOH asked about it and was told WASA was doing its job. My team had decided previously that we would all evade responsibility, blame each other and essentially not work with the public to help them find out what happened. When we decided this (and before I researched Stokes) it had seemed like a good plan for the assignment to tie Stokes and the DOH to the sinking ship of bad people, by not having her actively work against them.

I think we chose this for a number of reasons:

  1. It was by far the easiest option, to prepare for, to enact and feel good about. No one specifically flat out lied (at least on purpose), but no one went out of their way to inform the public about every detail they or their organization knew.
  2. We didn’t have to think about how to lie to the public. We just had to think about how not to say anything of substance and play the childish blame game, “Well maybe my agency did X, but we’re under Y and get our orders from them.”
  3. We didn’t have to think about a plan for public recovery (though from the assignment I was confused as to if we had the power to give free filters and bottled water to all of DC or call FEMA or do anything.
  4. Mostly, we did not need to be creative.

And there you have it folks, my first big gig and I blew it, acting in the least creative way, exactly as I thought I was supposed to. After I thought that maybe the point was that we all were supposed to go into the press conference thinking of ourselves as mostly innocent, or at least not entirely responsible. And I think that was some of it, but now I really think it was an exercise in “organized thoughtlessness,” of telling ourselves that our character’s or agency’s actions didn’t really matter, or more so, that our character/ agency couldn’t have made a difference in the situation. That we had to fall into the future we knew was written, of angry residents feeling betrayed by bureaucrats who didn’t step up and didn’t seem to get it and didn’t take initiative or responsibility at the press conference. Why else, besides pure laziness, and lack of creativity, would I choose to play the part as I thought it had likely been played, not maliciously, but thoughtlessly? As a DOH employee not concerned by an email saying we should discard people with lead solder as at risk, not thoughtful enough to question why WASA would call the DOH and want such a quick turn-around for a seemingly pointless pamphlet. Maybe Lynette Stokes wasn’t to blame for not adding corrosion control or lying about water samples, but she was to blame for not paying attention. It’s as if she tuned in, turned on and dropped out. Stokes decided, consciously or not, to not think about, or question, her work and I think that’s where things started going wrong for her – and my acting career.

You know you love me. xoxo Ethics Girl


Tsunamis, Earthquakes and Cyclones Oh My!

This week we learned about Tsunamis, Earthquakes and Cyclones- how they occur, how their behaviors are modeled, and how the probability of their occurrences are measured. The knowledge we have about each hazard allows us some ability to plan for disaster resilience and risk management. Unfortunately there are limitations to our knowledge, ability to plan, and public understanding of these hazards.


Tsunami’s, also called tidal waves, or seismic sea waves are defined by a high wave (sometimes tens of meters high) caused by the displacement of a large body of water. They occur unpredictably and often with little time to respond. They can be generated by earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and meteorite impacts. These sources of tsunamis can be difficult to predict. Earthquakes and meteorites follow the power-law distribution, with smaller events occurring more frequently than larger ones. It is very difficult to determine a frequency distribution for submarine landslides as they can be triggered by earthquakes, sea level rise, excess pore pressure, weak layers, underwater explosions such as nuclear detonations, glacier calvings, and tectonic over steepening of the local slope. The impact of tsunamis is mainly focused on coastal areas, but they can affect entire ocean basins. Tsunamis can affect places along the same coastline much differently, with higher waves in one place than another. This can come from the “Fingers of Death” or mid ocean ridges and mountain ranges, or sometimes underwater landslides, channeling water towards the shore. In the Dec 2004  tsunami waves were channeled through these “Fingers of Death” towards Nova Scotia and Peru. This concentrated the force of water and hit those areas harder. After a tsunami happens geologists and other scientists measure the inundation- distance traveled inland, and the run-up-vertical distance above sea level that the waves reached. There are multiple monitoring centers that watch for tsunamis and their causes using bouys, tide gauges, seismograph stations, and pressure recorders, in order to try to warn people about tsunamis coming their way. In the case of earthquakes or underwater land slides causing a tsunami, the size and features of the event can be used to try to predict the size and path of a possible tsunami. Seismic waves travel faster than tsunami waves, so in the case of earthquakes causing tsunamis there can be an early warning of the hazard. Volcanic eruptions also cause seismic tremors and these can be used to make tsunami predictions. Meteorites can be difficult to predict, and if large enough, can have such a devastating impact that potential tsunamis might be the least of your problems.



“Fingers of death”


Earth quakes are caused by tectonic plates or earth’s crust rubbing or pushing against each other, often along fault lines, where two tectonic plates meet. 97% of earthquakes occur along plate boundaries with only 3% of earthquakes occurring in the interior of plates. Using pressure and force to disturb the earth causes seismic tremors. These tremors are measured on the logarithmic Richter scale which measures seismic oscillations. The Hokie’s have been able to generate seismic readings in scientific labs on campus on the Richter scale from jumping to Enter Sandman in Lane Stadium. Just like excited humans can cause seismic waves, so can man-made fracking or pumping waste water deep into the ground. (see ) Seismic hazard maps are drawn illustrating tectonic plate boundaries and places where earthquakes are likely to occur. These maps can be used to update building codes for earthquake preparedness in earthquake prone places. Seismic hazard analysis is done to determine the probability that a hazard will occur in a given amount of time in a location, this can give predictions as to how likely an area is to experience a certain magnitude earthquake. PGA or Peak Ground Acceleration is measured to determine the maximum ground acceleration that occurred during an earthquake, this is equal the largest amplitude recorded on an accelerogram.  Maps can be made of PGAs to better understand the hazard. Whereas the Richter scale measures the total energy of an earthquake, the PGA measures how much the earth shakes at a geographic point and tells you more about possible damage to buildings in the area. Seismic hazard maps are created to show the likely PGA values and probability of exceedence for each area. Earthquake warning systems rely on accelerometers seismometers alarms and communication systems to warn the public should a triggering event start. Earthquake prediction is not yet capable of decisive event warnings.


Tropical Cyclone’s and their accompanying Storm Surges are perhaps the most commonly occurring of the three hazards we discussed. Tropical cyclones include hurricanes and typhoons, and by definition form in the tropics. They are compact and generally have moderately strong to severe winds and the potential to create large waves and storm surges. Extratropical Cyclones are usually more spread out than tropical Cyclones with winds typically being weaker than those of tropical cyclones, but the duration and extent of high winds, big waves, and large storm surges can be longer for extratropical cyclones. Both types of cyclones cause high winds, storm surges, large waves and precipitation. Cyclones have been responsible for many deaths throughout human history, and lots of destruction of property, particularly from the storm surges they cause. Tropical cyclones such as Hurricanes are divided into categories based on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which does not account for the factor of storm surge. A hurricane’s category is often used to communicate with the public how severe the hazard is, when really the higher ranking hurricanes have stronger and faster winds, but there are more hazards that come with a hurricane than their winds. The fact that Hurricane Katrina was classified Category 3, and produced 28ft storm surge, whereas the predecessor Hurricane Camille of Category 5 had hit Louisiana with less storm surge confused the public and encouraged people to stay in harm’s way.

Storm surges occur when pressure drops and high wind blows on the ocean surface to produce vertical circulation to cause high waves and rising seas, often causing significant flooding, property damage, and in some cases human fatalities.

The probability of a storm surge is measured by the Annual Exceedance Probability AEP, defined by the probability an event occurs in a given year and that its magnitude exceeds a prescribed value.  A flood is described by the return period, or 1 over the AEP. This gives way to the common name of a 100-yr flood. Having the calculations handy of AEP’s  gives us the chance to see what areas are within the 100-yr flood zone. This is helpful for determining where to build infrastructure and seeing on a map what areas could be more likely to flood during a storm surge. Scientists and FEMA use maps of different years of flood zones to understand at risk areas and populations and place storm surge mitigation efforts. Unfortunately the name of a 100-yr flood is very misleading to the general public. It sounds as though an area within the 100-yr flood zone is only likely to flood once every 100 years, but actually a 100-yr flood zone means that there is a one in four chance of a flood occurring within a 30 year time frame in that area. This gives home-buyers and construction companies/ investors a false sense of security and can encourage people to buy property or live in harms way. While there is legislation about building within the 100-yr flood plain, in some US cities there are grandfathered exceptions, or a lack of public zoning laws which can expand the issue of people living in frequently flooded areas.


class notes


Commentary on Writing a Personal Essay

Self Essay Criticisms

I think you’re crazy for making us write an essay telling you who we think we are.  We see us as we want to see ourselves: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. At times I am a brain, and an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal …

The broader terms you use, the fewer expectations, the less disappointment and confusion you experience in defining yourself. How do you define a person anyway? In the small, endearing, yet random, details such that they love to dance in the super market, or in their theatrical performances of Janet Weiss losing her mind ? My musical theater background makes the argument that you could measure a person by the things that they love.

But most of us hold dearest our sense of selves.

We tell ourselves we are driven, passionate, and good people who want to change the world, when in reality at the end of the day most of us fall apart if our basic needs aren’t met or we are uncomfortable. Or we over indulge in self-care and focus on making it through the day rather than fighting for the change we told ourselves we so wished to see in the world. Most of us live unremarkable lives and most of us are happy with and indeed aim for that. Why, because although we love ideals like integrity, Ut Prosim, brotherhood, sacrifice, loyalty, duty, leadership, honor and service, these ideals that we love often conflict with one another. We are forced to choose one principle over another. Or we encounter teleological versus deontological conundrums, questioning a moral code versus a moral result, and are forced to pick a spot along the axis of ethics.  Or maybe we are forced to choose between anthropocentric or ecocentric actions and find a balance as environmental engineers who must “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public”.  In fact perhaps we should be defined by what ideals we choose not to love or uphold.

So then instead of defining one by their values, shouldn’t we define them by their actions? But the lawyer in me argues with Machiavelli that intent and means must be taken into account. So then we are left with the messy problem of putting together the right brain and the left brain of each person and adding the emotions and choices into a person which is an ever evolving process.

For the past two years I have been tirelessly working towards the goal of being a Masters student in Environmental and Water Resources Engineering at Virginia Tech. Over and over writing personal statements declaring who I am and my dreams of becoming an engineer. But none of these personal statements that I wrote showed my view of ethics, or my passions for theater or grocery store dancing or my dreams of being a real life mermaid. Why? Those are all ways to look at me. But though these traits and quirks make up my personhood, not all of my personhood is relevant to a personal statement that declares my pursuit of being an environmental engineer.  Nor is acknowledging all of my personhood always something that I want to do.

Just like a well written personal statement should paint the author in a good light, a well functioning ego will let you believe that you are all those nice things you wrote in that personal statement, and nothing less.  So what do you get out of reading a personal statement? Nothing more than a glimpse into the better parts of a person and their hopes for their endeavors,  but a personal statement runs the risk of defining someone by their accomplishments rather than their habits. But maybe a glimpse into a person’s life is all you need.

After all, people aren’t static, we’re constantly evolving. In fact, I haven’t danced in a grocery store in months.  So maybe that little tidbit is not worth me holding onto. But without constantly questioning my ideals, my view of myself, and the things I value, I run the risk of it all losing meaning.

Why does it matter that I like to view myself as the type of person who likes to dance in the grocery store? Is it that I value spontaneity and creativity? (In which case I’ve danced in many a Safeway so perhaps this is more of a habit and less of a spontaneous creative gesture) Or do I value the action of dance itself? Or do I value tradition? (Since at this point it’s been a well established routine.)

Without engaging in this constant banter of an inner dialogue we run the risk of going through life half conscious of our needs and desires, but even worse we run the risk of falling into the trap of trying to define ourselves and stagnating. Without change how can we have progress?

We have to admit to ourselves that we can never only be those inspirational dynamic characters we pinned down on paper in our personal statements, that those characters are flat. A 2D snap shot in time of who we were once in a focused moment. But those characters we wrote about are not us. We are so much more, more lazy, more impulsive, more confused, and more alive.

Does that answer your question?

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-You know you love me. xoxo Ethics Girl