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$4 million grant funds new UW RAPID facility to investigate natural disasters worldwide

October 05, 2016

In the days and weeks following an earthquake or hurricane, precious data about how buildings, bridges, roads, slopes and people fared in the disaster may get lost forever if well-equipped researchers are not able to enter the field rapidly.

Unstable buildings get bulldozed without documentation of how they were damaged, making it difficult to assess how building codes might be improved. Weather washes away key clues that could help us build more resilient communities. Many households are displaced, and some businesses will close forever.

At the University of Washington, a new Post-Disaster, Rapid Response Research Facility funded by a $4.1 million National Science Foundation grant will provide necessary instrumentation and tools to collect and assess critical post-disaster data, with the goal of reducing physical damage and socio-economic losses from future events. Part of a $19 million investment announced Wednesday by the NSF's Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure program, the RAPID Facility will make the data openly available to researchers, practitioners and policymakers.

"Often with rescue and response efforts, this very valuable data disappears really quickly," said center director Joe Wartman, a UW associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. "By collecting this data in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, we can begin to understand what went wrong and why. This allows us to better prepare and take precautionary measures in advance of future events."

The RAPID Facility, an interdisciplinary center that will be housed in the UW Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will focus on two types of natural hazards: wind hazards, such as tornadoes and coastal storms, and earthquakes, which includes earthquake-induced ground failure and tsunamis. The center's leadership team also includes faculty from the University of Florida, Oregon State University and Virginia Tech.

It will offer next-generation tools -- laser scanning equipment, seismic instruments, mobile devices for social surveys and mixed-media recording, drones outfitted with cameras, sensors that can measure damage at the centimeter scale -- and assistance to teams that can deploy in the aftermath of a disaster anywhere around the world. It will also offer training to communities who wish to conduct post-disaster investigations themselves, as well as assess the social costs of disasters.

The RAPID Facility will also create new software tools for transmitting, integrating, exploring and visualizing the complex data sets. These include mobile apps to assess structural damage in the field and a platform for mixed-media social data gathering. At the UW, a computer-automated virtual reality environment will also allow people to walk into a room and "see" the disaster scene in three dimensions as if they were there. The technology was developed by RAPID partner Oregon State University, as this video shows.

"The idea is that you can use the facility to collect data -- either through our staff or our training -- and then you can come to the center months later and recreate the field experience by walking through a damaged building or looking at how much a particular area flooded," Wartman said.

One of the center's main goals is to better inform mathematical models used to predict how much damage buildings, bridges, levees and other key infrastructure will suffer in a certain sized earthquake or storm. By using data from actual disasters to uncover flaws in the models, communities can better prepare for real-world eventualities.

For instance, models currently predict how bridges from Seattle to the Eastside would perform in earthquakes of differing magnitudes. If those turn out to be off target, emergency managers may not have the right plans in place to ensure that hospitals on one side of the lake aren't overburdened or supplies can get to where they need to go.

"These computational models require real-world data to be calibrated and validated," said Jeffrey Berman, UW associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and one of the center's principal investigators. "Post-disaster data will help us improve the various models necessary for understanding losses from natural disasters."

Scott Miles, a research scientist in human centered design and engineering and the third UW principal investigator, will lead the development of social science and citizen science tools.

"Understanding post-disaster social impacts and responses is one of the most challenging aspects of reconnaissance. The RAPID facility will provide unprecedented resources to innovate workflows and tools for systematic collection of qualitative and quantitative data for social scientists," Miles said.

In addition to supporting researchers, the facility will enable citizens to use social media and mobile devices to crowdsource post-disaster data and build awareness about wind- and earthquake-related impacts.

The new center includes an interdisciplinary faculty team: UW civil and environmental engineering professor Laura Lowes will focus on structural and engineering analyses, Applied Physics Laboratory research scientist Troy Tanner will lead software development, and Evans School of Public Policy professor Ann Bostrom will focus on data collection methods for social science.

The center builds on UW faculty expertise with post-disaster data collection and analysis. Wartman led a team of NSF-sponsored researchers to collect data and document conditions following the 2014 Oso Landslide, the deadliest landslide in the history of the United States. Miles has conducted multiple socio-economic reconnaissance efforts, including an NSF-funded project to understand how businesses were impacted by Hurricane Isaac. Berman's current work includes NSF-funded research projects to develop seismic load-resisting systems and to investigate potential impacts of a Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake on the Pacific Northwest.

The grant follows NSF's $40 million NHERI investment, announced in September 2015, which funds a network of shared research centers and resources at various universities across the nation. The goal is to reduce the vulnerability of buildings, tunnels, waterways, communication networks, energy systems and social groups in order to increase the disaster resilience of communities across the United States.

"Under NHERI, future discoveries will not only mitigate the impacts of earthquakes, but also will advance our ability to protect life and property from windstorms such as hurricanes and tornadoes," said Joy Paushke, program director in NSF's Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation.
For more information about the UW center, contact Wartman at or 206-685-4806. For more information about today's NSF announcement visit:

Photos available for download here:

Video available here:

University of Washington

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