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Notre Dame professors research different aspects of structures in disasters

Engineers and social scientists at Notre Dame are coming together to research the connection between building structures and human responses to natural disasters.

Tracy Kijewski-Correa, professor of engineering and global affairs, focuses her research on structures during natural disasters. Recently, she appeared on USA Today to discuss her research, which is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The engineers Kijewski-Correa works with explore the best technical recommendations to use in codes and standards to ensure structural resilience. Her partners in the social sciences, meanwhile, are working to create incentives to put these recommendations into practice. 

Kijewski-Correa said funding has improved the quality of her work. Grants take time to acquire, she said, sometimes even a year. But natural disasters can occur anywhere and with very little notice, so additional resources allow Kijewski-Correa and her team to respond quickly.

“If you haven’t had a right to a grant after the disaster, everything would be cleaned up,” said Kijewski-Correa. “It takes about a year to get a grant in place, so they preposition these grants so that we can respond more agiley when an event occurs.”

Kijewski-Correa said a reactive response is important for civil engineers. They are not able to experiment, she said, the same way chemists can in a lab, because their work is based in the trial and error of the real world. Simulations cannot provide the engineers with accurate data.

“We can build small models in a laboratory, but that doesn’t capture what society goes through in a disaster. We can make computer models, but again, without data to validate them, it’s our best guess,” Kijewski-Correa said. 

Susan Ostermann, associate professor of global affairs, has also received a grant from the US National Science Foundation. Working with a structural engineer, she came to the conclusion there are simple solutions to the structural issues caused by natural disasters — but they weren’t being implemented.

The solutions, Ostermann said, lie with the building codes and following the proper procedures. She said those responsible for a building’s construction aren’t always inclined to read the codes and follow up on every instruction they mandate. Because of this, Ostermann and her colleague will devise new ways to inform citizens about building codes that will encourage them to implement inexpensive changes. 

“We kind of want to see if we can mess around with what it would take to convince people that some of these things are worthwhile,” Ostermann said.

Their research will be centered on Puerto Rico and Alaska. These territories were selected, Ostermann said, because their vast differences allow researchers to narrow in on their similarities and make more generalized conclusions. These similarities include their multi-hazard environments, deep-set traditions that do not align with building codes and proximity to U.S. politics.

“A most different comparison maximizes differences to find what is common,” Ostermann said. 

Kijewski-Correa and Ostermann both work with undergraduates. Kijewski-Correa highlighted their work in Haiti in 2020.

“The work that we did in Haiti, I will highlight, was actually carried out and led by undergraduates of our university,” she said. “It resulted in the only data set that’s been available to guide the U.N. and the World Bank in recovery after the disaster.”

Ostermann has yet not started her research, but she is searching for undergraduates. She said she thinks this will be a valuable opportunity for students because the engineers and social scientists will be working together completely on the project, not just in their separate jobs.

“It is really tremendous to get to work in an interdisciplinary project, and truly interdisciplinary, not sort of separated off where you go do your own thing,” Ostermann said. 

Despite the differences in their research, Kijewski-Correa and Ostermann believe they are work to support the mission of Notre Dame to be a force for good in the world. 

“I’m not Catholic, but I like Catholic social teaching,” Ostermann said. “That resonates for me, and I think that’s at the core of this, as well. We’re really talking about minority populations that already have struggles of their own and have to work with them to improve their lives and keep those communities whole.” Kijewski-Correa agreed.

“The people who are most affected by disaster tend to be the poorest and most vulnerable in our society,” she said. “So any research that can help communities build better before disaster, rather than being impacted and then struggling to build back better, is always not only going to be a force for good, but it’s going to fight for justice and equity in the world.”

Contact Emma Duffy at eduffy5@nd.edu

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