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ND researchers mobilize as Hurricane Florence paves stormy path

| Monday, September 17, 2018

Hurricane Florence struck the east coast Friday, ransacking North and South Carolina with record flooding and region-wide catastrophe.

The storm was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical depression, but the damage being left in its wake persists: thousands are trapped by rising floodwaters, hundreds of thousands of homes are without power and the death toll reached 18 Sunday.

For a group of professors, that damage is a siren call.

Photo Courtesy of Tracy Kijewski-Correa
Andrew Kennedy surveys a demolished beach in the Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. Kennedy is part of a group of professors that conducts research on natural disasters to evaluate infrastructure and building codes.

Andrew Kennedy, a coastal science and engineering professor, is one of a group of faculty members in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences (CEEES) who collect data about natural disasters. Often, this involves deploying to the affected area or partnering with teams already in the region to conduct research.

With our partners in North Carolina, we have put out 10 water level gauges on the North Carolina barrier Islands on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week,” Kennedy said in an email. “[With the gauges], we will have good records of water levels and some wave information near buildings, which is needed for helping designs. However, we will not have this information until we pick up the gauges and download the data.”

This isn’t the first time professors deployed to an area struck by natural disaster to gather on-the-ground data. It’s been done for “a bunch of storms” in the past, Kennedy said.

“We used to have a program where we would have a helicopter fly along the coast before the storm and lower gauges that we found afterwards using divers,” he said. “But that program ended a while ago, and since then we have only been placing gauges on land to investigate conditions around built-up areas.”

As of Sunday, rain accumulation reached 40 inches in southern North Carolina and 20 inches in northern South Carolina and western North Carolina, according to the National Hurricane Center, and is also affecting parts of Virginia and other New England states.

Given the severity of the storm, research can’t be conducted until before or after the disaster hits, Kennedy said, which means deployment teams must wait before collecting much of the research.

“It is not certain what will happen after Florence clears up,” Kennedy said. “We will likely send a team down in concert with other people and assess the damage and how that related to the conditions during Florence.”

The team will likely be led by Tracy Kijewski-Correa, Kennedy said, who is the director of the Structural Extreme Events Reconnaissance (StEER) Network, a National Science Foundation initiative created this year.

Kijewski-Correa said StEER is a new network involving a “volunteer corps” composed entirely of members from in or around the community affected by the storm. The team will travel to the afflicted region in a coordinated manner to gather on-the-ground research, she said.

Our job is to get on the ground fast, as fast as safely possible, and use mobile apps to collect as much data as we can using a team that’s in the field as well as a larger team that remains at their universities processing the data that they’re feeding in on off their phones,” Kijewski-Correa said.

Using wind simulations, storm surge measurements, aerial data and social media, Kijewski-Correa said the StEER team has been working already to identify key neighborhoods particularly struck by Florence for on-the-ground teams. The aim is to create a “sheet map” of a concentration of damage across the affected area — one that can help other research teams or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“I’m literally corresponding with professionals in South Carolina and North Carolina who are locked up in their homes right now,” Kijewski-Correa said. “But we can get on the ground with our mobile app almost instantly once the rain subsides, and they can start feeding data into the second wave that will probably fly in from universities that are further away from the zone.”

Virtual assessment teams work on the “backside” of the operation, Kijewski-Correa said, which involves processing the data from on-the-ground researchers and adding additional information to assist in the process.

Most of the information that you need you have to be up-close front to observe,” Kijewski-Correa said. “The reality is you cannot forensically kind of understand what happened unless someone gets close enough, either with a drone, a set of laser scanners or physically with a mobile camera to be able to take those images. You can’t really see them unless you have someone get there.”

Notre Dame’s performance during the hurricane season last year warranted a contract distinguishing the University as the “coordinating node” for the network, Kijewski-Correa said. This new role will change the manner by which the storm’s damage is assessed.

“If we do a really good job as the leaders, we’re empowering other researchers to get out there and collect the data rather than us having to chase every disaster, which is really hard,” she said. “We deployed people for I think all three hurricanes last year, and that’s a lot of missing class, a lot of physical and emotional burden on those people.”

While about three Notre Dame professors regularly deployed for natural disasters, the goal now is to take everything learned over the last 10 years and build it into a system encouraging others closer to the target zone to engage in research, Kijewski-Correa said.

“We are virtually leading [others] and orchestrating their movements and staying kind of like what we call a ‘war-room’ above the battlefield so that you can see what all your people on the ground are doing and position them well rather than being so deep in it without cell communication that you can’t really beat,” she said.

The data gathered often helps researchers learn what needs to be changed in infrastructure and building designs, Kijewski-Correa said, which can be a decade-long cycle to implement after a major disaster. She said this is known as the “major learning loop,” an element of structural engineering that is essential to keep people safe.

“The only way that all of the construction practices and building codes that keep all of your families safe are ever validated is for people to do exactly what we do because we cannot build your house and then subject it to all that nature can do at full-scale,” Kijewski-Correa said. “We can’t simulate the kinds of things that the hurricane does in a lab, you actually have to see what it really does because it’s so complex and so large-scale you have to see that on the ground.”

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About Kelli Smith

Kelli Smith is a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she served as Editor-in-Chief at The Observer for the 2019-20 term. She is pursuing majors in political science and television with a minor in journalism. // Twitter: @KelliSmithNews

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