Heading off disasters: the Extreme Events Institute


The Extreme Events Institute takes a broad approach to saving the world from what Mother Nature dishes out

It’s a tale of two countries.

In January of 2010 a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti. An estimated 230,000 people perished in the cataclysm, a tragedy of unfathomable proportion punctuated by individual stories of heartbreaking loss.

Just six weeks later, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake hit Chile, a country located along a highly active offshore fault line. The official death toll was reported at 560, with an estimated one-third due to the tsunami that followed.

Both earthquakes resulted in tremendous pain and suffering, but the losses in Haiti remain staggering. In addition to the deaths, more than 300,000 people were injured and 1.5 million left homeless. Some 4,000 schools were damaged or destroyed as were more than 60 percent of government and administrative buildings in the capital.

Meanwhile in Chile, with a population 65 percent higher than Haiti’s, 370,000 homes were damaged, but affected municipal buildings and hospitals generally returned to service within days or weeks.

These stark differences in human and economic losses are at the core of what researchers within FIU’s Extreme Events Institute (EEI) want everyone to understand about the impact of nature’s destructive forces: Collectively, we humans have choices.

“Nature provides the events,” says EEI Director Richard Olson. “What we put in harm’s way — ourselves, our societies, our economies — that’s on us.”

Therein lies Olson’s big-picture message. There is nothing “natural” about disasters, and calling them so lets communities and their leaders off the hook for poor decisions. Natural events — be they earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, drought, wild re or lava flows — are by definition acts of nature. But disasters reflect what humans do, or don’t do, in the face of known hazards. In the cases of Chile and Haiti, one had effective building standards and consciously prepared. The other, for a host of reasons, could not and did not.

Disaster as a moral issue

Olson speaks passionately about the role of people and their governments in creating disasters: When people build and live in hazard-prone areas without contemplating ways to adapt or mitigate — some of them forced there for economic reasons — well, then we are the problem.

“You want the real heart of this?” he asks while talking about his work as the head of a multi-pronged, multidisciplinary institute that currently has more than $14 million in grant-funded projects underway and affiliations with universities and organizations throughout the world.

“People don’t need to be dying, and we don’t need to be seeing them destroyed economically at these rates. There’s just something morally wrong about people suffering these unnecessary losses,” he argues.

“Back when we didn’t understand hazards, maybe. Back when we didn’t understand engineering and technology and where and how to build stuff, maybe I wouldn’t be so angry. But when you look at the numbers of people being killed, injured, made homeless, economically devastated, it’s just wrong.”

And so Olson, a renowned political scientist and disaster expert with 20 years at FIU, makes the case that large-scale loss of life and property does not make sense, even in these highly volatile times. “We have the knowledge, the technology,” he insists. And while the x won’t come easily, with enough vision and resolution it can happen within the next century.

Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas

Nowhere does EEI’s long-term view come into greater focus than in the work of the Disaster Resilience and Climate in the Americas Program (DRCAP). The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has awarded the university more than $9 million since the program’s inception in 2008 to address existing and developing risks in Latin America and the Caribbean. The program seeks to advance the region’s ability to mitigate hazards by focusing on land use management, building codes and preparedness.

Among the international projects undertaken in recent years is a USAID- funded study of slums and shanty-towns in Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica and elsewhere. The goal: to understand the role of society’s smallest units in planning for, and bouncing back from, the kind of ash ooding and mudslides, earthquakes and tsunamis that have killed hundreds of thousands in the region over the past 20 years.

“It is so challenging because the presence of governments [in these poor areas] is nonexistent. So the needs are huge,” says DRCAP Director Juan Pablo Sarmiento. The Colombian surgeon for two decades worked for USAID as a technical manager for Latin America and the Caribbean before coming to FIU. He served as an evaluation team leader on the project that took him to eight countries.

DRCAP’s goal is to build capacity within affected areas to make it possible for homegrown experts to tackle the risk issues affecting their communities and countries. To that end, DRCAP collaborates with universities, governments and NGOs to train those in the best position to understand circumstances on the ground and take charge.

“We trust in people, encouraging them to get involved, create incentives, and we work together to develop an agenda in which they feel ownership, that this is their own need, their own priority,” he says.

DRCAP foremost provides “technical assistance,” a sharing of knowledge and practices to foster skills and development at the local and community levels. DRCAP and its af liates together offer workshops and intensive online courses on topics such as land use management and economic-impact analysis. In just the past year and a half, 211 hand-picked individuals (of the nearly 900 who applied from around the world) have participated in professional development programming, among them mayors and emergency management officials.

Other DRCAP initiatives include a collaboration with USAID and the Florida Small Business Development Center at FIU to create a mobile disaster-preparedness app for small business owners and a collaboration with the United Nations and several multinational firms to assess the ability of small and medium-sized businesses in New Orleans to continue operations in the face of recurring flooding.


The Wall of Wind

Located in hurricane alley, South Florida knows violent windstorms, and FIU’s International Hurricane Research Center (IHRC) has its origin in one of the biggest to hit the region: Hurricane Andrew. The 1992 disaster devastated a large swath of Miami-Dade County, an event that continues to serve as a watershed for the state.

Now part of EEI, the IHRC is a hub of cutting-edge research programs. Perhaps the best-known is the Wall of Wind. Designated an experimental research facility by the National Science Foundation, it features 12 fans capable of generating category-5 windstorm conditions. The most powerful of such laboratories in the country, the Wall of Wind serves as a testing ground for construction components and has contributed to the state of Florida’s raising its building code to one of the most stringent in the country. Research there pushes continuous improvement of design in the service of saving lives and property.

In 2018, the facility is expected to be in use 203 days (with the remainder available for maintenance). That time includes not just testing but also the critical prepping of components and scaled-down buildings through application of pressure taps and sensors that record as many as 1,000 different measurements. The facility is operated by professors of civil and environmental engineering Ioannis Zisis and Arindam Gan Chowdhury, the latter a holder of patents on hurricane-resistant roofing and related technology.

Established companies and startups come to test solar panels, shutters, windows, wall systems and roo ng materials. Engineers from universities such as Stanford, Ohio State and Rensselaer Polytechnic bring their ideas and inventions.

“They know that something tested in the Wall of Wind will have all these complements of turbulence, rain, high-speed wind,” says Chowdhury of the many variables that can be introduced. “So it’s realistic.”

The Florida Hurricane Public Loss Model

Until communities have mastered the science of mitigation, violent hurricanes will continue to exact a human toll — and cost a lot of money. Andrew in 1992 cost individuals and insurers in Florida more than $25 billion — about $45 billion in 2018 dollars — and revealed the vulnerability of everyday citizens as well as the insurance industry charged with protecting homeowners’ property.

Andrew was responsible for the failure of at least 16 insurers, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The inability of so many to survive massive payouts had its origins in the relative dearth of prior recent hurricanes.

“The insurance companies had not experienced [a major windstorm] for years, and rates were ridiculously low,” says Shahid Hamid, chair of the department of finance within the College of Business. “They traditionally looked at 10 or 20 years to determine rates, but there had not been any hurricanes for 20 years.”

The insurance crisis had Florida’s leaders scrambling to prevent future financial calamities. One task force called upon the talents of Hamid, who today serves as director of the Laboratory for Insurance, Financial & Economic Research. The lab’s main order of business: to maintain and operate the Florida Public Hurricane Loss Model (FPHLM), which the state uses to regulate windstorm insurance rates and determine fair pricing.

The FIU-developed FPHLM has been funded with approximately $20 million from the state since 2001 and relies on nearly 40 experts and graduate students — in the fields of computer science, engineering, meteorology, hydrology, storm surge, statistics, nance and actuarial science — at FIU and partner institutions such as the University of Florida, West Virginia University and the University of Notre Dame. The team works to determine likely average annual windstorm losses and probable maximum losses in a worst-case scenario.

“It’s basically a computer program with hundreds of thousands of lines of code,” Hamid says of the FPHLM, which is updated as new information becomes available. Into the program goes meteorology data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), engineering data from experiments at the Wall of Wind and elsewhere, insurance-company data on individual policyholders’ homes (location, year and style of construction, type of roof, etc.) and GIS data that describes “terrain roughness” (such as tree cover and hilliness, both of which serve to slow down wind).

The team then simulates 60,000 different storm tracks and intensities and couples those with engineering vulnerability models and actuarial models. The output is used by the state to ensure that rates are neither too low nor too high and re ect individual homeowners’ true risks.

“We are influencing every premium in every house in the state of Florida,” Hamid says.

The FPHLM also helps keep proactive homeowners’ premiums down by quantifying the economic benefits of using hurricane shutters, impact windows, stronger roofs and other mitigation measures, which collectively cut losses by as much as 40 percent — information the state uses to negotiate discounted rates.

Coastal waters modeling

In addition to damaging winds, water issues such as storm surge and coastal ooding have become major focuses of attention, and the IHRC has answered the need to better understand these threats.

FIU has brought together geoscientists, mathematicians, meteorologists and computer scientists to develop a coastal storm surge model — known as the Coastal and Estuarine Storm Tide model, or CEST — that NOAA uses to update and refine its own numerical modeling prediction system. CEST allows the agency to test and evaluate potential improvements before adopting them.

“Our modeling system has to be rock solid when so many people are depending on accurate and on-time forecasts,” explains Jamie Rhome, leader of the agency’s storm surge unit. He is responsible for providing the information upon which local and state authorities make calls about evacuating residents — decisions that in the United States are related not to wind but to water.

“If the modeling system that I use to make those forecasts suddenly blew up, becoming mathematically unstable, or it just suddenly crashed and I couldn’t get it to run again, think about how much it would imperil the safety of all those people and the critical decisions that emergency managers and local authorities are making all up and down the coastline,” he explains.

For example, FIU helped advance NOAA’s model by taking the same terrain ruggedness data used in the FPHLM and applying it to CEST. FIU incorporated the data and over several months wrote the required code to run simulations that reflected the additional information. NOAA specialists reviewed the work and decided it had value and incorporated it.

Separately, FIU has cooperated with NOAA to give the agency the ability to capture data related to potential coastal flooding internationally by relying on satellites. Rhome calls the work “an incredibly big breakthrough” that will give countries such as the Dominican Republic and the Philippines better information about the hazards they face.

Other work of the IHRC

With the Wall of Wind, the FPHLM, CEST and other initiatives underway, the IHRC brings together disparate technical projects and high-level resources. Outreach and education programs, however, remain critical and have been developed in a broadly collaborative effort under the direction of Erik Salna, a meteorologist and former TV weatherman who still has his hand in the media as a substitute on-air personality.

Salna preaches “the message of mitigation,” or preparedness, he explains while rattling off numerous events and activities he attends to inform children and families of their responsibility to keep themselves safe.

“That’s one way to take what we do at the university out into the community,” Salna says. Making it real has him and others offering mini-science lessons in efforts to engage and educate the public. A few years back, FIU engineers even designed a small- scale Wall of Wind as an exhibit at the Frost Science Museum so that youngsters could better understand risks. And the Wall of Wind runs a challenge for high school students to encourage innovative thinking in support of mitigation design. (And, yes, they do turn the fans on the kids’ projects.)

IHRC has also worked with NOAA to make a Spanish-language version of the agency’s hurricane web site. And just before the start of storm season this year, the center helped premiere “Built to Last?,” a documentary produced by one of its resilience experts, Aris Papadopoulos. It is currently airing on PBS stations and around the world.

For all the work underway at EEI, the truth remains that fully mitigating disasters worldwide will take decades or longer, particularly as climate change throws a new wrench into the mix. (EEI regularly collaborates with FIU’s Sea Level Solutions Center.) And yet the team remains undaunted. They see their labor already bearing fruit — be it in Latin America, where both will and a supply of trained professionals is growing, or in Florida, with its strict building codes and a burgeoning awareness among the public — and their energy shows no signs of flagging. If anything, the team are encouraged by the progress, says EEI Associate Director of Research Administration Carolyn Robertson MS ’04.

“Five years ago everyone was interested in the aesthetics of the home,” she says. By contrast, prospective buyers now ask, “Is the home built strong? Am I going to be inconvenienced every time there’s a hurricane where I need to evacuate because I live in a flood zone or my roof is 40 years old?” The message is getting through.

“I think change is happening,” she says. “People are starting to pay attention.”

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