…no, this isn’t a reference to the food and hotel allowance for federal employees on travel. Rather it’s a kaleidoscope of thoughts and impressions picked up today per those folks at DIEM – the DHS Center of Excellence headquartered in Chapel Hill. Focusing on Natural Disasters, coastal Infrastructure, and Emergency Management, DIEM has been conducting an Annual Program Review. It’s at the mid-point of six years of funding support provided by DHS. The diversity of research topics, the successes and challenges, the funding constraints feel like a microcosm of our larger community. A sampling…

First the research. Under this one Center of Excellence, with support totaling no more than a few million dollars, there’s a lot going on! Here’s a taste. One researcher has been looking at how children have been faring in the aftermath of Katrina. She’s found (no surprise) that children of parents who were struggling beforehand (financially and otherwise) are themselves struggling more than their more-well-adjusted counterparts. She’s also found that children who’ve been distracted by their parents are doing better than those whose parents are trying to ameliorate their pain. This latter initially struck me as surprising. However, on reflection, I realize that those parents who help their children focus on something – anything – other than that past pain as opposed to allowing them to dwell on it or become obsessed by it are doing them a huge favor. A final note; the researcher found that those children raised in families of faith also coped better than their a-religious peers.

Other social scientists reported on surveys of people’s perception of their risk from natural hazards. One snippet. Turns out that you and I don’t see our neighbors or our leaders as particularly well-prepared, but we think we’re ready for whatever may come. As for our leaders, they think they’re well prepared, but they think we the public are clueless. And so on. [Slight exaggeration, but you get the idea.] We heard several reports from engineers and hydrologists, and will learn more today. Some are doing ground-breaking high-resolution modeling of storm surge. And speaking of ground-breaking, some are looking at scouring under bridges and roads by that storm surge. They’re developing techniques for quickly assessing the integrity of bridges following storms…not by getting underwater and checking out the bridge pilings by eye, but by striking the road superstructure with a scientific instrument (aka a sledgehammer) and analyzing the oscillations. [Turns out that bridges rarely die of old age; they mostly fail because as a result of extreme events.] Others are studying the destruction of dunes and barrier islands by storm overwash, and the effectiveness of beach replenishment in reducing such damage.

Others are modeling evacuation traffic flow, modeling critical infrastructure repair, etc. These were listed as engineering studies but even here the human factors and policies enter in. Take evacuations. Turns out (again, over-generalization), that neither emergency managers nor transportation folks are eager to take this one on. The emergency managers say that’s DoT’s job; the DoT folks say they’re focused on day-to-day pothole repair, etc., and lack the resources for traffic management in emergencies of large scale. Not unlike what we find in aviation; air traffic controllers don’t want more weather information; they’re busy already just helping maintain the distance between aircraft, etc., and they don’t want the added liability. And the critical infrastructure repair? The models we saw yesterday suggest that repair of four infrastructures – power, communication, water, sewage – proceeds fastest when there’s unified, central control across these four sectors, slowest when each proceeds independently. Not a surprise. But if there’s no centralized control, but simple information sharing across the four sectors, then the recovery proceeds almost as quickly as under the command-and-control regime. That suggests a lot of potential for collaborative approaches.

Some of the more successful work? DIEM researchers have identified best practices for developing state disaster recovery plans, and have used their findings to analyze dozens of state plans and one hundred or so plans developed at the local level.

Education. The research efforts to date have ben coordinated by UNC-Chapel Hill, but parallel work in education of professionals and in STEM education has been managed by Jackson State University. In addition, the Center’s projects support a gaggle of graduate students.

The DHS support. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, DHS has funded a dozen centers of excellence like DIEM, going back several years. But funding constraints which have emerged in Congress over the past few budget cycles have forced cutbacks in DHS R&D, which DHS has passed along to the Centers. In DIEM’s case funding was cut back 20% two years ago, and by additional amounts both last year and this. As a result, DIEM has cut projects. Support for what work still remains has also declined. At the same time, DHS is asking to see more and stronger linkages between the research and practice. This latter is a particular challenge. Transfer from research to operations (or R2O) works most smoothly when it’s the explicit goal from the beginning, not tacked on in midstream, and when practitioners as well as researchers are in program from the first. The mood in the review has been positive but sober.

Microcosm of larger trends. Are you working in hazard mitigation? Resource extraction? Environmental protection? Chances are good you recognize your own circumstances mirrored here. Lots of exciting work to do…and it’s complex, urgent, and multi-faceted. Blending the natural sciences, engineering, and social sciences? Not an option but a necessity. Funding is constrained and uncertain year-to-year. And the supreme challenge? Harnessing what is learned for societal benefit.

Reducing disaster losses? Enhancing public safety? Educating the next generation of scientists and engineers?

To be inspired by all this has been worth the per DIEM.

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