War on terrorism puts disaster pros in limelight

A&M hazard lab's natural disaster research applicable to homeland security issues

In the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government began a rigorous examination of its ability to protect citizens and better prepare emergency responders for any kind of emergency or disaster. As a result, the science of disaster mitigation and recovery was thrust into the national limelight and federal homeland security agents took a seat at the table with veteran disaster specialists at conferences across the nation. Among those receiving overtures from the federal government were scientists from Texas A&M University's Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center.

Since being established as part of the College of Architecture in 1988, the HRRC has conducted a wide range of research in hazard mitigation, disaster preparedness, response and recovery. The center's interdisciplinary team includes experts in architecture, engineering, geography, geology, psychology, sociology, urban planning, and political science.

The center takes an "all hazards approach" to its studies, explained Carla Prater, an HRRC research scientist. As a result, she said, research findings in one area, such as hurricane disasters, are often applicable to other hazards, both natural - like earthquakes, floods and landslides - and unnatural - like terrorist attacks.

"We are certainly experts in emergency response," said Prater. "In our view, emergency response to the consequences of terrorist incidents is not going to be hugely different to emergency response to other incidents."

Mitigating hazards, on the other hand, she said, is a bit more complicated, requiring different approaches for different hazards and, in the case of terrorism, "a very different geo-political set of issues" that fall beyond the HRRC's usual focus. Yet in spite of the differences, she added, steps required to reduce disaster impacts are similar, regardless of the type of threat.

"In all hazard situations, one must take steps to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from the event," Prater said. "Basic research is needed, risks must be assessed, and a determination made regarding prevention or mitigation. Regardless of the hazard agent, options must be developed, plans made, and public education and training be included as critical steps."

Problems such as these are among the tasks the HRRC scientists routinely tackle. And though terrorism may be the latest menace to homeland security, the threat of natural disasters, which destroy lives and property across the United States every year, remains every bit as real and inevitable in the wake of September 11.

Two current HRRC research projects on the natural disaster front involve aiding emergency management professionals in areas vulnerable to hurricanes. One project, funded by a $400,000 National Science Foundation grant, is the development of a software application, the Evacuation Management Decision Support System, which will help public officials monitor the onset of a potential hazard and determine when and where to initiate evacuations

The need for such a system arises from trends toward significant population growth in hazard-prone areas such as low-lying, hurricane-vulnerable land along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. HRRC research shows this problem is further confounded by economic and political resistance to hazard-resistant land use and building construction practices.

"A low loss of life could be maintained if hazard resistant measures were adopted rapidly enough to offset increases in population growth," explained Michael Lindell, HRRC director and professor of urban planning at Texas A&M. "But since this is not happening as it should, it has become increasingly necessary to improve our ability to evacuate threatened populations and prevent loss of life."

The idea for the evacuation software arose from the HRRC's hazard/vulnerability analysis and evacuation planning work with the Texas Governor's Division of Emergency Management. According to Prater, the center's longstanding relationship with DEM "offers an unparalleled opportunity for user input into the software design and for accelerated technology transfer to state and local emergency managers."

The other HRRC project is the development of an electronic emergency management textbook for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The book, to be posted on the FEMA Web site, will offer emergency specialists and academics around the world a comprehensive and up-to-date online resource.

"It is the best way to get the knowledge out there," said Prater of the cost efficient e-book medium. "Readers will be able to download chapters as they need them, we can update the book easily, add and revise chapters, and include links to other related material on the Web."

In 2003, the HRRC agenda included work in both the international and domestic arenas. As the world and the nation brace for inevitable natural disasters and the specter of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction looms significantly in the future, the scientists at Texas A&M's Hazards Reduction and Recovery Center will be plying their talents toward making the world a safer place for all.

"Uncovering new and innovative ways to save lives and mitigate the ravages of disasters of all kinds is central to the HRRC mission," said Prater. "To date, it has been a very fulfilling endeavor."

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