Carpe DIEM!

Seize the day!

We all know we’re supposed to do this.

Today, I’m living this out with an actual site visit to DIEM – the DHS Center of Excellence headquartered in Chapel Hill. Focusing on Natural Disasters, coastal Infrastructure, and Emergency Management, DIEM coordinates the work of dozens of researchers and students, at institutions centered in the Carolinas but distributed across the entire country.

Here’s their mission statement:

The Center focuses on advancing understanding of hazard resilience and transferring that knowledge into action, resulting in reduced loss of life or injury and lessened damages to the built and natural environment. The mission is achieved by the pursuit of interdisciplinary and integrated research in coastal hazards modeling, engineering to enhance the resilience of the built and natural environment, disaster response and social resilience, planning for resilience, and advanced visual analytics.

A broad portfolio. Researchers and students will be reviewing progress over the last year. It promises to be an interesting day – well worth seizing!

DIEM is just one of a dozen such Centers of Excellence funded by DHS. Here’s more background on these Centers, taken from the DHS website, and including a full list:

The Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology (S&T) Directorate Centers of Excellence (COE) network is an extended consortium of hundreds of universities generating ground-breaking ideas for new technologies and critical knowledge, while also relying on each other’s capabilities to serve the Department’s many mission needs.

All Centers of Excellence work closely with academia, industry, Department components and first-responders to develop customer-driven research solutions to ‘on the ground’ challenges as well as provide essential training to the next generation of homeland security experts. The research portfolio is a mix of basic and applied research addressing both short and long-term needs. The COE extended network is also available for rapid response efforts.

Managed through the Office of University Programs, the Centers of Excellence organize leading experts and researchers to conduct multidisciplinary homeland security research and education. Each center is university-led or co-led in collaboration with partners from other institutions, agencies, national laboratories, think tanks and the private sector.

Centers of Excellence

There are currently 12 Centers of Excellence across the country.


  • The Center of Excellence in Command, Control and Interoperability (C2I) led by Purdue University (visualization sciences co-lead) and Rutgers University (data sciences co-lead) will create the scientific basis and enduring technologies needed to analyze massive amounts of information to detect security threats.

Adding it all up? Maybe $50-100 Million per year of R&D, carried out by something like one thousand researchers. Fold in similar research funded by other federal departments and agencies. That’s just domestic research accomplished here in the United States. Extend that to the work underway abroad. It’s clear that we’re making a significant international investment. Our understanding of the nature and causes of disasters is flowering.

A significant investment! But we need to put it to work. Recall that mission statement for DIEM quoted above: “…transferring that knowledge into action, resulting in reduced loss of life or injury and lessened damages to the built and natural environment.”

Efforts to apply this knowledge are active and ongoing, but they’d be leveraged greatly if supportive policies were in place. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know the catechism. Here are five ways we might make hazard risk management itself (and by implication, climate adaptation) more effective.

Embrace No-Adverse-Impact policies. Their analogs, environmental impact statements, have been with us a long time. You know the idea. When you and I contemplate construction, land use, etc., we have to assess the environmental consequences of our actions. In a similar way, we could and should assess any benefits and/or risks our plans and actions imply for community resilience. Build a levee? What are the consequences for a downstream community? Build a road and power, water and sewage lines out to newly-developed beachfront property? What are the consequences for the coastal communities when storm surge takes out these homes and their associated infrastructure?

Learn from experience. When it comes with natural hazard risk management, we should adopt the learn-from-experience habits of aviation, as embodied in the work of the National Transportation Safety Board. Their mantra after an accident? “This must never happen again.” By contrast, after natural disasters, we hear vows to “rebuild as before.” This different mindset condemns us to natural disasters of increasing cost and scale.

Measure progress. We often hear it said that we get better at what we measure. But we’re not measuring the costs of natural hazards. These losses vary greatly from year to year, but currently average something like a billion dollars a week in the United States. And our economic measures such as GDP don’t really show them as losses, because they factor in any rebuilding as contributors to economic growth. By such measures we could really stimulate the economy by burning down our houses once a month and rebuilding them the next.

Foster public-private collaboration. Such collaborations are the reality in the United States today. But this reality is not acknowledged. Hazard mitigation and emergency response continue to be seen as public-sector roles. Fair enough. But the execution of this work falls on the public sector and private sector alike. The latter should be brought in and recognized as full and equal partners.

Revitalize a venerable institution. Much has been made recently about a notional move of NOAA from the Department of Commerce into the Department of Interior. But Commerce and its agencies including NOAA, NIST, EDA, and Census comprise an excellent home for reducing losses and maintaining business continuity in the face of natural hazards. This opportunity cost should be weighed against the benefits of moving NOAA to Interior.

Five policies that would build a United States more resilient to natural hazards? There is more that could be done, but these measures would be a useful start.

Carpe diem (DIEM)!

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