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Coastal Resilience Center Charts Path for Safer Communities

natural disaster flooding
This week in National Preparedness Month, we examine the particularly devastating scenario of hurricanes. The new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence is making strides with communities on how to be ready before storms hit the shore.

This National Preparedness Month, the devastation of hurricanes remains vivid as the United States marks ten years since the tragic destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When considering hurricane preparedness, understanding and promoting coastal resilience is crucial. As sea levels rise, flood modeling and forecasting is essential for preventing and limiting damage and loss of life when a hurricane makes landfall.

The DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) announced a five year, $20 million grant award in April 2015 to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The funded projects are scheduled to launch in January 2016. The newly formed DHS Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC) will build upon the successes of its predecessor, the Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence (CHC), which developed essential storm surge and flood models that were critical for pre-storm planning.

The CHC’s track record includes informing the U.S. Coast Guard’s strategic operations in preparation for and during natural disasters. The Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence is able to provide accurate and advanced hurricane storm surge and flood models in real-time emergency situations.

Director of S&T’s Office of University Programs (OUP) Dr. Matthew Clark, which manages the Center of Excellence system, stated, “The CRC will develop science-based solutions to some of the most complex and dangerous situations the United States faces – floods and hurricanes.”

The CRC has 22 projects spread among 17 university partners. Fifteen of these are research initiatives that will tackle three themes: coastal infrastructure resilience, building resilient communities and disaster dynamics.

Coastal Infrastructure Resilience and Disaster Dynamics

The CRC will build on the work of the Coastal Hazards Center by further advancing models used for storm surge and flood forecasting. The Advanced Circulation Storm Surge Model (ADCIRC) and new advances in forecasting storm impacts at greater distances will allow us to see where flooding may occur and what it could mean for coastal infrastructure.

This work will enhance the accuracy of pre-storm information, allowing emergency responders to reinforce coastal defenses against hurricanes and decision makers to efficiently improve recovery efforts. This type of technology enabled the U.S. Coast Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to allocate precious resources before, during and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The CRC now offers its Best Practices Hazard Mitigation Planning website, which allows access to a suite of free interactive planning tools. These tools are the result of a study of 175 local hazard mitigation plans from six different states. This effort was the first national evaluation of hazard mitigation planning to be completed since the passage of the 2000 Federal Disaster Mitigation Act, which requires local governments to develop and adopt a hazard mitigation plan to qualify for federal disaster funds. The suite’s tools focus on the quality, implementation and performance of these plans.

Federal, state and local emergency planners can access this information through the Beyond the Basics website that is modeled on FEMA’s Local Mitigation Planning Handbook.

Building Resilient Communities

Research efforts are also addressing the local capacity to assist coastal communities that are vulnerable to hazards, such as hurricanes and sea-level rise. The CRC has focused research on validating indicators that communities can use to analyze and evaluate their post-disaster recovery outcomes. The Disaster Recovery Tracking Tool offers a range of metrics that first responders can employ to improve the community’s level of resiliency in the wake of a hurricane.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in partnership with Mississippi’s Jackson State University, will lead the CRC’s research as part of the grant from OUP. Next year the CRC will host its first annual meeting to chart the paths the projects will take and discuss how to promote greater connectivity between each of them. Field practitioners and end users will participate in CRC meetings and are involved in every project to advise content output and guide the course of a project.

“We have several new research projects starting that will continue to build on these and other tools available to the first responder community,” explained CRC Director Gavin Smith with UNC-Chapel Hill.

Two of the new projects include a tool to measure community stress to support disaster resilience planning at Old Dominion University in Virginia, and a study at the University of Rhode Island that explores the communication risk factors that motivate individuals to take action prior to a disaster.

“As part of a DHS Center of Excellence, our researchers often work closely with stakeholders, including first responders,” Smith said. “The input we get is crucial to enabling us to ultimately provide tools and knowledge that people on the front lines can use.”

Educating the next generation of students who will become hazard researchers and practitioners will also have an impact.

The remaining initial CRC projects address developing coastal resilience courses, concentrations, minors and certificates at seven universities in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Four of these universities are Minority Serving Institutions. Target audiences are undergraduate and graduate students (including one program for developing a coastal-resilience-related PhD in Engineering), as well as practicing professionals.

Significant challenges remain ahead. Approximately 50 percent of the U.S. population lives within 100 miles of the coast. Disasters are projected to rise due to the continuing economic development along the coast, greater intensity of occurring storms and rising sea levels. CRC plans to continue its research and produce results that answer the challenges faced by the U.S. coastal regions.