To Track Damage and Decisions, Scientists Head to New Orleans

Release Date: September 30, 2005


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Days after Hurricane Katrina hit, research teams from the University at Buffalo's Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER) were dispatched to the Mississippi coast to conduct structural analysis and remote sensing of damage to large structures.

On Oct, 3, MCEER will send three teams of researchers to New Orleans, again with funding primarily from the National Science Foundation. Another team will travel to New Orleans on Oct. 19 to study environmental and health issues.

The teams leaving Monday will apply a multi-hazard perspective, examining structural damage, but also gathering valuable data about how hospitals, transportation agencies, utility companies and building managers decided to adhere to, or alter, their evacuation plans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

"These kinds of decisions go beyond the technical world," said Andre Filiatrault, Ph.D., deputy director of MCEER and UB professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

"In addition to researching technical methods for reinforcing structures after earthquakes or other hazards, MCEER couples engineering expertise with social science expertise to learn how organizations behave when faced with a disaster of this magnitude," he added.

"Our purpose is to better understand how decisions were made so that we can develop decision-support systems -- computerized systems that improve decision-making before, during and after such events," he said.

Social scientists will examine the financial, political and social considerations that led to the decisions that hospitals and other organizations made before, during and after the hurricane.

The teams will continue the daily postings of pictures and text that the first group began at The MCEER postings from Mississippi provided some of the earliest and most detailed pictures of damage to large structures in the region. MCEER now is inviting other research teams to bring their data to its website as well.

"We hope to make MCEER the clearinghouse in terms of data on damage to engineered structures along the Gulf coast," said Gilberto Mosqueda, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering who headed the first MCEER team and will be part of the group going to New Orleans.

MCEER is sending the teams to New Orleans to focus on:

Structures/Lifelines -- Mosqueda and Keith Porter, senior research scientist at the California Institute of Technology will look primarily at damage to commercial buildings and lifelines, including electric, gas and phone lines. They also will interview utility crews and decision-makers to find out how they responded to the disaster.

Social Sciences -- Daniel B. Hess, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of urban and regional planning, and Lucy Arendt, lecturer in the School of Business at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, will focus on evacuation plans of various organizations and what led to the decisions that were made, once New Orleans was flooded.

Remote Sensing -- Shubharoop Ghosh of ImageCat Inc. and Carol Hill, doctoral candidate at Louisiana State University, will correlate damage detected by satellites with measurements they take in the field, using digital cameras. The cameras will be mounted to a vehicle traveling at slow speeds through the damaged regions. ImageCat's visualization software, called VIEWS, will allow them to quickly correlate digital pictures extracted from the video with the satellite imagery.

The teams, which plan to spend between five and seven days in the Gulf area, will travel to New Orleans each day from their base in Baton Rouge.

The MCEER team traveling to New Orleans on Oct. 19 will include James Jensen, Ph.D., UB professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering and an expert in wastewater treatment, and Terry D. Connell, Ph.D., UB associate professor of microbiology and immunology. They will study environmental and health issues.

"This trip will provide us with a great opportunity to understand how decision-making can have enormous consequences," said Hess. "It's so important that we conduct this research right now, when everything is still fresh in peoples' minds."

Founded in 1986, the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research headquartered at the University at Buffalo is a national center of excellence in advanced technology applications dedicated to reducing losses from earthquake and other hazards nationwide. One of three such centers in the nation established by the National Science Foundation, MCEER has been funded principally over the past 19 years with $68 million from NSF; $36 million from the State of New York and $26 million from the Federal Highway Administration. Additional support comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other state governments, academic institutions, foreign governments and private industry.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.

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