Engineering Seminar: "The Anatomy of Disasters"

October 11, 2012

Hurricane_Katrina_140x140The UNF School of Engineering hosts the seminar, "The Anatomy of Disasters," presented by Dr. Ed Link of University of Maryland, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering), from 10 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, 11 October 2012, in the Student Union Building 058, Room 3805.

 

 

In early 2011, the media reported a forecast of the “end of the earth.” Dubbed the “Rapture”, thankfully it was inaccurate. But the same source, likely using the same information updated with one piece of hard fact—the non-event—forecast the Rapture for 21 Oct. 2011, obviously again in error. This typifies the great uncertainty in forecasting extreme events.

The past decade has seen a number of lesser but quite extreme events, to include Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the tsunami flooding in Japan in 2011 and historic flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in 2011. Common to most such events are the extraordinary natural forces, the inadequacy of preparations and the great losses experienced. Why are we surprised by powerful natural events? Events of similar intensity to the disasters cited have occurred before.

Of the three components of risk—the hazard, the reliability of systems to mitigate the hazard, and the consequences of the event—hazard is perhaps the most difficult to quantify, particularly with rare events. Katrina created the largest surge measured on the North American continent, yet it was billed by the media as a low level CAT III hurricane. The floods of the Mississippi basin were historical highs, but could have been significantly worse. And scientists in Japan did not feel a Magnitude 9 earthquake was likely off the coast of Honshu and the policy adopted was to focus mitigation measures on more likely events.

Hazards often involve processes operating on geological scales of time and space. But we tend to think about them in the human scale. Too often we use relatively short data records and extrapolate to the geological or natural time scales. We lean on assumptions that past events will be representative of future events to simplify analysis. Often, we assume the most severe events recorded -or even worse, the most severe events we remember—represent the worst natural processes have to offer. The uncertainty in natural processes and our inability to estimate and embrace it has often led to surprise, and dire consequences.

Given an inaccurate assessment of the hazard, it is likely that the systems employed to deal with the hazard events is either overly conservative or inadequate.  The overly conservative option is never in the news, but is also less likely because of our national bias to minimize funding for large infrastructure projects that have a relatively small chance of being used.  The election cycle still trumps the life cycle. It is more likely that surprise will be on the side of the hazard and the system developed to reduce risk will in fact fail to do enough.  
And the resulting consequences are often exacerbated because of a national trend of increasing population and property in areas vulnerable to the hazard but believed to be “protected”. In fact a number of studies have demonstrated that rising levels of risk are more often due to increases in the assets vulnerable to flooding than the increasing intensity of the natural events.

These events will be examined with respect to the components of risk to reveal strategic lessons learned. Attention will be paid to the overall uncertainty that resides in the processes that govern the outcomes of a chance encounter of a natural hazard event and a human developed infrastructure design to deal with the hazard.   Where risk and uncertainty are being considered as an integral part of infrastructure design, the record of performance is far better than where it is not.
Unfortunately not all of the lessons to be learned have been experienced yet. In each of these events, some successes occurred, in the case of the Mississippi main stem flood, one might even call it a resounding success. The big question remaining is how well are we prepared for the future? Answering that question is one of our most important collective challenges.

Dr. Link is a research professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Maryland.  He holds a B.S. degree with high honors in Geological Engineering from N. C. State University, an M. S. in Civil Engineering from Mississippi State University and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Penn State University.  He  formerly served as the Director of Research and Development and Principal Scientific Advisor, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Previous assignments with the Corps included the Director of the Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, the Assistant Chief of the Coastal Engineering Research Center and the Chief of the Environ-mental Systems Division of the Environmental Laboratory.

He retired in 2002 and worked as a senior advisor to Toffler Associates conducting strategic futures studies for government and industry before joining the faculty at the University of Maryland. Dr. Link served as the Director of the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force, performing the principal forensic analysis of the Hurricane Katrina flooding in New Orleans. He teaches courses in Natural Hazards and Natural Disaster Risk Assessment and Mitigation within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the University Honors program and is a member of the Program and Project Management faculty. Dr. Link serves on the Board of Directors of Taylor Engineering Corporation.

He is currently serving as one of five international advisors to the Netherlands for the development of their new  Delta Model, an approach to provide sustainable and climate-resistant water management for the next century.   He serves on the National Research Council Committee on Dam and Levee Safety and Community Resilience and recently co-led assessments of the National Dam Safety Program and the Unified National Program for Flood plain Management. He is a Certified Professional Hydrologist and has published over 100 technical papers and reports.   Dr Link was the recipient of the McGraw Hill Engineering News Record Award of Excellence in 2006 and the Gold Order of the DeFluery from the U. S Army Engineer Association in 2010.