Archive for the ‘DRRM’ Category

Visit to the Emergency Operations Center at VT

My research pretty much has nothing to do with the on-the-ground practice of crisis preparedness and disaster resilience, or the work done in Emergency Operations Centers, like the one we visited at Virginia Tech. However, I really enjoyed the visit and was super interested in learning about how VT prepares for on the ground responses in potential emergency situations. The current research project I am working on is for a water utility that is concerned about why their corrosion control chemical (orthophosphate) is inexplicably disappearing in their system before it reaches some consumers pipes. The water company is really concerned because without this corrosion control there is the potential for lead to dissolve off of the pipes and into the consumer’s water, and expose people to drinking lead contaminated water. So essentially this project, and a lot of the projects that my research group works with, are attempts to prevent another Flint Crisis, or to understand water chemistry to deal with potential lead crisis’s in the making. So our research would be more comparable to the preparation stages that the EOC discussed, though our group did on the ground sampling with citizens in their neighborhoods to try to respond to the Flint crisis and get data to the public as fast as possible. In regard to similarities to EOC’s boots on the ground as fast as possible if not already pre-placed, my lab group’s response to sending people and supplies to Flint draws a parallel.

The Virginia Tech Research Team

I thought it was really cool how the EOC used data from previous events on campus to plan for future ones. The presenter discussed how every arrest, EMS response, parking issue, etc is recorded for every home football game, and how this data is used to station police, first responders, ambulances and direct pedestrian and vehicle traffic for future games. The presenter talked about the importance of Building a Culture of Preparedness at VT.  In this respect this planning for future events phase is similar to what my research group does with some of our projects. One of my friend’s project for a water utility tested what would happen to the water chemistry should a utility change its water source from the ground water with it’s specific conditions, to a surface water source with different conditions. As evidenced by the fateful switch from Detroit water to Flint water and the unintended consequences, it was really important that she conducted this study and the utility researched what would possible effects could happen to their pipes and system before deciding to switch. The fact that this other  utility across the country reached out to our lab group after the Flint crisis to so they could make an informed decision and understand the possible effects of switching water sources speaks to the idea that water utilities are trying to enter this culture of preparedness that is so important for emergency planning. The amount of data that the EOC has on event planning is amazing, it would be very cool for future versions of our class to work with them on studying pre-positioning supplies/ personnel to expand on Dr. Zobel’s work.

Resiliency in Athens

Challenges to Resiliency in Athens:

The resilience strategy for the City of Athens has four pillars: open city, green city, proactive city, and vibrant city. Open city aims to address government transparency and accountability, to achieve effective and efficient governance, and manage to communicate and collaborate better with its residents by fostering data driven policy making and accountability. Green city aims to incorporate natural systems into the urban fabric, with the goals of being able to withstand climate change and environmental challenges, fostering sustainable food systems and establishing a sustainable and equitable energy system. Proactive city aims to streamline the city’s ‘survival’ skills to enhance planning in the face of serious challenges through planning and communication and empowering municipal representatives and local community and neighborhood members. Vibrant city aims to nurture and develop assets to promote well-being creativity, and entrepreneurship. Challenges to achieving these four pillars of resiliency in Athens include:

  • sharp decline in the population
  • large influx of refugees
  • increasingly aging infrasture
  • threat of earthquakes, violence and civil unrest
  • fragmented government structure and overlapping jurisdictions
  • the socio-economic crisis in Greece and Europe
  • declining incomes, growing personal debt, high real estate taxes
  • unprecedented levels of unemployment, poverty and homelessness
  • climate change, and insufficient climate protection of existing buildings, as well as public works and new building construction disregarding local climate conditions
  • social and economic decline and desolation of the city center
  • socio-economic squeeze of the lower income brackets

All of these challenges have recommended solutions in Athen’s Resiliency strategy based off the four pillars.

Stakeholder Engagement:

The stakeholder engagement began with the Agenda Setting Workshop that included 130 Athenians. After the workshop, stakeholders who were engaged included: city officers and elected officials, central goverment authorities, academics, non-profits, entrepreneurs, and a large variety of citizens and community groups. More than 140 organizations and 900 citizens participated in 40 workshops, conferences and public events. Athens engaged with fellow cities with international and local experts from each city. They used working groups, focus groups, workshops, confrences, meetings, and online surveys to engage stakeholders.

Who is missing:

While specific citizen demographics/ groups were not particularly clarified, I would venture to guess that most likely refugees, homeless people, and potentially groups/ members of groups who participate in civil unrest and/or violence were most likely not included in the conversation. While this might indicate that these people were not considered a high enough priority that DRRM researchers who complied this report would mention the efforts made to engage them, it could also indicate that these groups of people were difficult to contact or engage. Members of violent or civil unrest groups probably don’t want to identify themselves as members of these groups, though these groups often make their demands know via demonstrations. Homeless people and refugees may be difficult to stay in contact with, and/or not want to give out their personal information. While the report does not mention direct efforts to engage these people, or if these people were included in the large number of citizens who were engaged, the report does mention specific ways the resilience plan can help address likely concerns of these people.


In class we heard how models are defined and used within both Dr. Weiss’s and Dr. Zobel’s discipline. Dr. Weiss used mainly physical  models based on Newton Mechanics and laws of motion and mathematical models that use mathematical processes and equations to represent a physical process. Dr. Zobel used an optimization model for his research on pre-positioning supplies before hazards occur. In my discipline of Environmental and Water Resources Engineering we focus more on quantitative and physical models to help us discuss things that are happening in the real world and come up with quantitative analysis for things like pollutants, contaminants, global warming, and other environmental hazards.

Environmental and Water Resources Engineering has many smaller disciplines that fall under our department, and different models that accompany each discipline. On the water side, we have hydrology and fluid dynamics, and models like Hec-Ras and Modflow used for predicting the likelihood and/or quantifying water ex, flooding, storm surge, sea level rise etc. These models are limited in that they rely on assumptions that allow us to use equations to solve them quantitatively.

Here’s an example  of a static quantitative model from my class notes in hydrology:


As you can see the equation that is being used to model snow-melt is limited in that it relies on having data that is representative of a large spectrum to calibrate and find a rate constant. The model is static and quantitative  in that it accounts for how much snow has melted, but does not account for the water moving downhill. This static model would need to be paired with a fluid dynamic and a soil infiltration model if you wanted to know not only how much snow is expected to melt based on different temperatures each day, but also where that melted snow would go, and if it would perhaps flood a town, flow to a river or ocean, or be absorbed by the soil.

On the Environmental side, we have a lot of different types of disciplines that come together often for just one profession. For instance if you want to become a professional in Water Treament (either for drinking water or wastewater) you need to understand models from the fields of microbiology, chemistry, and physics so that you can design unit operations that will treat the water. You need to understand microbial kinetics models, to estimate how microbes react in chemical processes. You need to understand mass flux models to be able to estimate how aeration, or another unit operation will effect concentrations of chemicals in your water. And you need to understand water quality models to understand how hydraulic forces and sediment and other components of lakes and natural waters interact, so that you can understand your water source. In my program we take Principles of Environmental Engineering, which is essentially a class about modeling physical processes and using physical laws, like conservation of mass, to track concentrations and components of different systems. Here’s an example from my notes of modeling the effect sunlight and heat has on large water bodies:

All of these models have limitations in that you have to make assumptions to create the equations you use to make the model. For instance, will you assume that no flux (or air-water exchange) is happening in the model? If you do this then you would cross out a term in your model, but if you’re trying to mimic reality and flux is happening, perhaps at a low level, that term may or may not be important. Additionally, it can be hard to account for all the things that are happening within one model, for example, to model sea level rise, you need models on snow melt, models on fluid dynamics to find out where the water is flowing, models on soil infiltration, evaporation, transpiration etc. to find out if water is lost, models on water quality and potential stratification of large bodies of water to see how the temperature differentials impact sea currents and water movement. There are so many equations and models that must be used within other models, that the assumptions made could have a large impact. Dr. Zobel had a similar experience where he was building a model to figure out where to place red cross trailers, and within his model he used an equation- or a mathematical model- to determine risk. If that equation had a simplifying assumption that was untrue for the scope of Dr. Zobel’s larger model, then his using that method of calculating risk for his model could potentially impact the results of his findings. Just because most model’s components are actually smaller models, does not mean that modeling is inherently flawed, in no way am I suggesting that models should be thrown into the post modern science category with no way to prove their worth. The fact that most models are built from smaller models is both a limitation to their use, and also a great system that allows us to get closer and closer to capturing reality. We just have to be careful that the components of the model support and agree with the model and that underlying assumptions made throughout the model do not contradict themselves.

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.

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.





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


2011 Virginia Earthquake

I was getting into my friend’s mini van, when I thought her dad had started the car while I was still halfway in the door with one foot in the car and another on the ground. I then realized that the car itself was not moving, but the ground was moving. My friend and her family noticed the earth shaking too, and just as suddenly as we realized –earthquake- it was over.

The 2011 Earthquake that hit Central Va and was felt in my hometown suburb of Washington D.C. was notorious for the damage it caused to the Washington Monument, preventing visitors from walking up it for years after.  But what I remember most about that day besides the surprise of feeling the earth shake, was no one having cell or phone service for the next few hours.  My friend and I had been supposed to go on a baby sitting job and her parents had been about to drive us to our client’s house before the shake. It was back in the day when my mom and our community was not constantly tracking their children’s whereabouts on smart phones, but rather expected me to call her if plans changed from what she had been told. As she knew we were baby sitting, the fact that none of our cell phones had service immediately after the quake did not worry me or my friend’s family. We would just call at the client’s house on their landline when we got there. When we got to the house we tried using the landline to reach my parents, none of my calls to their cell phones went through and no one was home. I went back to babysitting and didn’t worry, I knew my friend’s parents would pick us up and I would see my parents at dinner. But later I would learn that the experience I had of not being able to make calls was not unique. Besides disrupting many tourist’s dreams of walking up the Pencil, the Va Quake of 2011 was defined by the challenge of lack of communication with cell phone towers being overwhelmed and first responder’s having to resort to using radio.  A similar lack of ability to communicate with phone service occurred ten years prior after the 9-11, 2001 attacks. Thankfully no fatalities or serious injuries were reported, but with this much ado about nothing the takeaway from the 2011 quake was that a community’s timely recovery is threatened when communication lines are cut.

In the years since the 9-11 attack, advocating for better technology and plans of action for keeping phone lines and first responder’s communication lines open grew. The Va 2011 quake exposed that the problem was not fixed and that more work needed to be done.