Responding to disaster
Through big data analytics, logistics and emergency management, UNT researchers are working to address challenges in disaster lifecycles through increasing community engagement and resilience to minimize human suffering and economic loss.
BY: ERIN CRISTALES
When Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas’ Gulf Coast a little more than a year ago, the numbers revealed its staggering toll. At least 89 dead. More than $125 billion in business and property loss.
And one important question: Where do we go from here?
It’s a query often posed following catastrophic events, particularly in Texas, which ranks first in the nation for the variety and frequency of natural disasters and is home to at least one major natural or manmade disaster each year. Regardless of the event — hurricane, tornado, wildfire, drought, flood — the answer is summed up in one word: resilience.
"When we talk about resilience, we’re not talking about returning the community back to where it was — we’re talking about bringing it back even stronger, economically and socially."
— Gary Webb
professor and chair of UNT’s Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Science
The word holds endless possibilities for UNT researchers, who are increasingly dedicated to addressing community preparedness — in turn mitigating human suffering and economic loss — through areas such as emergency management and disaster science, computer science and logistics.
“When we talk about resilience, we’re not talking about returning the community back to where it was — we’re talking about bringing it back even stronger, economically and socially,” says Gary Webb, professor and chair of UNT’s Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Science. “Disasters are tragic, but they also can present these windows of opportunity to come back stronger and better.”
UNT has long been a pioneer in emergency management and disaster science. In 1983, the university was the first in the nation to offer a bachelor’s degree in emergency management, and this year began offering a master’s degree in the discipline.
“Catastrophic disasters are on the rise, and the demand for knowledgeable emergency managers has never been greater,” Webb says.
Currently, faculty in the department are backed by National Science Foundation grants and state-supported activities to research business and community recovery after Hurricane Harvey, household recovery after Hurricane Sandy, and disaster preparedness in Native American communities, among other topics. Students have traveled to South Texas to conduct field work in the wake of Harvey, and to Joplin, Missouri, to study the devastating effects of the 2011 tornado.
It’s all in an effort to gather perishable data quickly so that researchers can learn from each event and better prepare communities for potential disasters.
“There are always so many lessons to be learned,” Webb says. “We are recognizing that there are a broad array of hazards that we need to equip ourselves to manage — certainly natural disasters, but also technological disasters like the explosion in West and human-induced tragedies. To be truly resilient, we have to embrace the all-hazards perspective.”
Technology as a tool
At UNT’s Center for Computational Epidemiology and Response Analysis, director Armin Mikler echoes Webb’s all-hazards approach. Although Mikler’s RE-PLAN software — developed as part of a nearly $800,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health — is specifically designed to address bioemergencies, the methodology can be applied to a variety of catastrophic events.
“What really is essential to resilience is preparedness,” says Mikler, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “You have to make planning a continuous task, where new information can be easily taken into consideration.”
RE-PLAN, an evidence-based response planning tool, uses population data at the individual and household levels that allows emergency planners to determine the number of Point of Distributions needed for a region, choose POD locations from a list of available facilities, and examine POD facilities in-office by automatically linking to Google Earth’s 3D imagery, among other capabilities. The result? A process that used to take as long as nine months now takes as little as 10 minutes, and has led to 30-percent cost savings.
“From anywhere in the nation, emergency planners can develop a response plan for medical countermeasures that involves the placement of ad hoc clinics or access points to pick up resources,” Mikler says.
RE-PLAN was first deployed in Texas’ Region 23, which includes 49 counties in North Texas, as well as in Los Angeles County, home to 13 million people. Most recently, the tool was deployed in Texas’ Region 65 South, which includes Houston and surrounding counties.
As Mikler’s research into resilience continues, so do his interdisciplinary collaborations. He’s worked with researchers in the Department of Geography and the Environment, the Advanced Environmental Research Institute, and the Jim McNatt Institute for Logistics Research.
“Resilience also means maintaining or rebuilding supply chains so that businesses can survive. It means recognizing the impact chemical spills may have on the environment,” Mikler says. “In many ways, your plan is a living thing — it evolves and never becomes stale and static.”
Evolution — particularly in terms of the global economy — is a key factor when it comes to resilience research conducted by Brian Sauser, director of UNT’s Jim McNatt Institute for Logistics Research.
“It used to be if you were a small business in a small town, you sold a product to the people who lived in that town. But the economy has changed now, and you can have a small business that is selling a product completely outside of that town,” says Sauser, who also is a professor of logistics in the College of Business. “What we find is that the balance of those newer kinds of businesses and traditional small businesses can impact a community’s resilience.”
In addition, Sauser is looking at businesses that fail to reopen after a disaster — known as “lost” or “misplaced” businesses — in an effort to glean what is causing their disappearance.
“We know about the businesses that come back, but we know very little about the ones that don’t and why they didn’t come back,” he says. “Maybe they didn’t know about resources that are available to help them — I think there is a lot to be learned, and of what is learned, it needs to be effectively transferred to communities.”