Hazard and disaster experts call
for research institute at meeting
hosted by HRRC at Texas A&M


Walter Gillis Peacock, director of the Texas A&M College of Architecture’s Hazards Reduction and Recovery Center, envisions a future in which, with the help of research, the planet’s population is less affected by natural disasters than it is now.

To that end, Peacock and other leading natural hazard and disaster researchers met on the Texas A&M University campus June 12-15, 2008 and called for the establishment of a Resiliency and Vulnerability Observatory Network (RAVON), and established guidelines for its establishment, focus, and operation.

The conference was hosted by the HRRC and funded by the National Science Foundation and the United States Geological Survey.

RAVON’s steering committee, chaired by Peacock and composed of six disaster researchers, sees RAVON as a collection of nodes undertaking a research agenda to provide the social science community, policy makers, and society with the knowledge and predictive understanding necessary to reduce the vulnerability and enhance the resiliency of individuals and communities struck by natural hazards.

“There’s a growing recognition from people involved in emergency management planning and those who address recovery issues as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United States Geological Survey that simple physical science and engineering solutions are not going to solve the problems” related to natural disasters, said Peacock.

“What we need now is to change the nature of how it is we are addressing these issues; broader social science and planning and those aspects that we deal with in the College of Architecture need to be a critical component in that solution,” he said.

In a world informed by RAVON’s research, said Peacock, communities would not be impacted as negatively as they have been by natural disasters. “We would see a reduction in losses; we certainly wouldn’t see the things that happened with Katrina,” he said.

“We would see fairly rapid and equitable recovery, so we wouldn’t talk about big sections of New Orleans still being undeveloped, or Miami, with sections that didn’t come back after Hurricane Andrew.”

Peacock said RAVON research can point the way to communities’ increased disaster resilience through appropriate design and building procedures.

“What we’re fundamentally lacking now is the ability to carry out research to actually understand those processes,” he said.

At the conference, steering committee members conceived RAVON as a network that would focus on natural disasters, (not deliberate or willful acts such as terrorism); enhance interdisciplinary research between it and other NSF environmental observatories; promote comparative research to refine and measure core components of societal vulnerability and resilience to hazards of all types, and insure that RAVON’s research agenda be informed by the issues of socially vulnerable populations.

Committee members also agreed on resiliency and vulnerability being central to RAVON’s research agenda with other points of emphasis on risk assessment, perception and management strategies. A sample issue in this area is the prevalence of insurance in different communities and among different socioeconomic/demographic groups.

The committee also agreed that RAVON’s research agenda include preventative actions taken prior to a hazard impact as well as recovery and reconstruction following a disaster.

Also, the committee determined guiding principles for data collection activities and RAVON’s potential structure, governance and implementation.

“One of the things we wanted to make sure of was that this would be a distributed network,” said Peacock. “What we would hope is that this would be governed by a committee of researchers throughout the United States.”

Collecting data from as many areas as possible is essential to RAVON’s mission, said Peacock.

“If we only had it researching here at Texas A&M or Bryan/College Station or even the Galveston/Houston area, that would be in effect one case study, and the nature of what we’ve been trying to stress to the NSF and the USGS is that’s been part of our problem,” he said.

“What we need to be able to do is have good, solid, comparative, longitudinal, meaning through time, research. If we can’t get that, we’re not going to get to where we need to get to truly understand what resiliency is all about and what vulnerability is all about.”

Hurricane Katrina, said Peacock, showed that Americans can be affected by natural events and that vulnerability is not equally distributed.

“It’s a big issue that needs to be grappled with for our long-term future,” said Peacock. “We’ve seen calls for increased spending in research related to natural hazards, especially hurricanes. We’ve had Katrina, we had Rita, and all the people stuck on the roads trying to escape Rita,” he said.

In addition, said Peacock, the NSF could soon be undergoing one of its periodic recalibrations, which could provide a greater opportunity to provide funds for an initiative like RAVON.

Peacock said the NSF and USGS had a good reason in mind when they asked him to organize the conference.

“We have a cadre of top researchers at the HRRC, recognized throughout the U.S. and the world. They knew if the meeting was here, we would have not only just me but everyone else involved in the center that is well-known and winning awards for the nature of the research that they’re doing,” he said.

Peacock said the next step in the RAVON process for he and his fellow committee members is to write a policy statement/research agenda from the conference. He and the committee are hoping the report sends a solid message to leaders in the NSF and USGS that they see this as an important initiative that needs funding.

He said he and other committee members will likely be heading to Washington, D.C. soon to make presentations to those organizations.

Members of RAVON’s steering committee are:

    • Howard Kunreuther, co-director of the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center and professor of decision science and business and public policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania;
    • William Hooke, senior policy fellow and director of the American Meteorological Society’s Policy Program;
    • Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina and distinguished professor of geography;
    • Stephanie Chang, a faculty researcher with the Centre for Human Settlements at the University of British Columbia;
    • Philip R. Berke, director of the Center for Sustainable Community Design and professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina, and
    • Walter Peacock, steering committee chairman, director of the Texas A&M College of Architecture’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center and professor of urban planning.

    - the end -


Walter Gillis Peacock, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, believes a network of hazard research centers will help lessen the frequency of images such as this one, from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

Please click on images for slideshow

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