Researchers from the Hazard Research and Recovery Center at Texas A&M’s College of Architecture encountered snow, giant mosquitoes and a devastated gulf coast landscape while investigating Hurricane Ike recovery efforts in the Galveston area last December.
The project, led by principal investigator Shannon Van Zandt, assistant professor of urban planning, and project director and co-investigator Wesley Highfield, a postdoctoral research associate with the college’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, seeks to answer three questions about the gulf coast’s recovery following Hurricane Ike:
The project was funded by a $145,671 grant from the National Science Foundation through a quick-turnaround program that allows researchers to go out into the field and collect data that’s fleeting, said Van Zandt.
“The grant is huge for the NSF’s quick response program, almost double the usual amount,” said Sam Brody, acting HRRC director. “It’s being supported by three NSF programs, a testament to the importance of this type of work,” he said.
Eighteen Aggie graduate students, 11 from the College Station campus and seven from Texas A&M’s Galveston campus, fanned out across the Galveston/Bolivar Peninsula area, collecting data to assess property damage and household decision making related to Ike recovery efforts using two methods: visual damage assessments and detailed surveys of residents.
“We visited every house at least once, and most of them twice, to see if we could find somebody home,” said Van Zandt.
In the surveys, researchers asked residents about Hurricane Ike’s impact on their residence and what repair and recovery measures they had taken.
“We’re also trying to determine if they’re living in the house they were in when the storm hit, or if they’re having to rent another unit somewhere while they’re working on their house,” said Van Zandt.
They collected data from housing units chosem by the HRRC through storm track data, preexisting damage data and social vulnerability index data.
The weather had a big surprise in store for researchers. “The first day we were out there it snowed,” said Van Zandt. “That was a real problem, particularly on Bolivar Island, where the streets are gone and it’s too muddy to be out there without a four-wheel drive once it gets wet.”
“There were so few residents out there, we thought it was appropriate to pull out,” she said, and researchers returned to the area when things dried out a bit.
Packs of giant, swarming mosquitoes tormented researchers. Even students from the Galveston campus were at a loss to explain the massive presence of the pests so late in the year; the bugs needed only a few seconds of an open car door to attack passengers.
Despite the obstacles, students were able to complete more than 300 household surveys and 1,500 damage assessments. The data will serve to create models of the impact on urban development and social vulnerability on community resilience to natural hazards and serve as a baseline for further study of community recovery, for which additional funding will be sought.
The Bolivar peninsula, which was devastated by Ike, provided special research challenges.
“On the Bolivar peninsula the streets are gone, the street signs are gone, so many of the houses are gone, it’s really difficult to find an address,” said Van Zandt. “For those areas we knew we were going to have difficulty finding, the students took computers equipped with geographic information system software so they could look at the mapping and aerial photography and identify where they were.”
Though the field portion of the project is complete, Van Zandt said she’s hopeful for more responses from residents.
“We visited every house at least once, and most of them twice, to see if we could find somebody home,” said Van Zandt. “For those we weren’t able to find, we’ll send those surveys by mail. If we get a 30% response rate, we’ll have 200 more completed surveys, and I’d be real pleased with that.”
One effect of Hurricane Ike is already clear from the survey efforts.
“We see from the damage assessments that there’s a much higher vacancy rate in rental units, so a lot of those people are being displaced. It’s kind of hard to track people where they’re gone, but we do want to be able to say something about reoccupancy for rental,” said Van Zandt. “Are new people coming in, are these people who lived in these units before, and what’s the turnover?”
The data will ultimately be combined with databases for the Galveston County Appraisal District and Texas A&M’s Texas Coastal Community Planning Atlas, which was developed by the center and went online in 2008.
“Shannon did an incredible job mobilizing the students and faculty members to do the damage assessments,” said Brody, the HRRC director. Without her leadership, we would never have collected as much data as we did. Her damage assessments and household interviews will set the baseline for determining the degree of property damage on Galveston Island cause by Hurricane Ike.”“The ability to capture initial damage assessments should provide the basis for a longitudinal database which will continue to generate a better understanding of the relationship between community resilience and recovery.” Said Van Zandt in the project’s abstract.