A Year After Sandy, Research Focuses on the Social Impact of Disasters

With each natural disaster, researchers focus more on the social impacts on communities.

Neighborhood residents embrace outside the Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief center Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, in Staten Island. The center has been operating the full year since Sandy, aiding local residents with free clothing, food and baby/infant products.

A year after Hurricane Sandy ravaged coastal cities in the eastern United States, new scientific research focuses on the social impact of severe natural disasters.

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Natural disasters have a tendency to bring to light different social impacts and inequalities that exist in communities, such as trouble rebuilding, poor access to health support or simply accessing shelter during a storm. But increasingly, researchers from different disciplines are banding together, combining science with public policy to improve preparation, response and recovery systems following a natural disaster.

Not only does research focus on improving warning and alert systems, but it also focuses on how to better communicate those warnings to the general public, how to pinpoint the optimal shelter spaces out of danger, and how to continuously update emergency responders and citizens with developments in what is often a very uncertain and dynamic event.

[READ: Down the Boardwalk, New Jersey Rebuilds One Year After Sandy]

Different events over time have also galvanized new interest in social issues that arise with natural disasters, says Tricia Wachtendorf, associate director of the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center.

"These disasters that we're looking at are very much social problems," Wachtendorf says. "We're not looking at events that happen in an area where there are no people. We're looking at how these natural systems really interact with the human environment."

Major hurricanes and earthquakes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, generated buzz in the research community about what people can do before a disaster happens. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, drew attention to response and improving coordination, while Hurricane Katrina in 2005 highlighted social inequities that exist in disasters, Wachtendorf says.

And with Superstorm Sandy, which cost upwards of $68 billion in damages, the featured issue was long-term recovery, Wachtendorf says.

But in order to have more targeted and effective response and recovery efforts, scientists and emergency management workers need to have more data to predict and visualize where and for how long hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, tsunamis and wildfires will affect a community.

In an effort to improve how communities respond to and recover from natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and the Oklahoma tornadoes, the National Science Foundation recently doled out $32 million in grant awards to fund 12 different projects that address safety and social issues.

Wachtendorf, along with Rachel Davidson of the University of Delaware, is beginning a project to gather data and modeling of different hurricane scenarios to develop better communication, evacuation and sheltering plans, with the understanding that storm conditions change over time.

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Having real-time updates of storm and hazard developments is also important, says Louise Comfort, of the University of Pittsburgh. In an NSF-funded project, Comfort and her team are using an underwater sensor network to pick up seismic movement that precedes tsunamis.

"What's critical is not every earthquake generates a tsunami," Comfort says. Being able to better predict the size and path of different waves will help emergency management workers better target evacuation notices, to avoid chaos that sometimes ensues during large natural disasters, despite the fact that not all areas are in immediate danger. Sometimes, people clogging the streets to escape the area can cause more damage than the tsunami itself, Comfort says.

"Sometimes there's 15 to 30 minutes to warn residents and inform them of the strategies to evacuate and get out of the way. But there's one strategy, and that's to leave," Comfort says. "This is pretty difficult if you have a city of 900,000 people."

A similar project out of the California Institute of Technology, also funded with an NSF grant, seeks to better understand how tsunamis affect coastlines both near and far from their epicenters. Often times, it's not just the initial wave of a tsunami that brings damage to coastal communities, says Monica Kohler, co-principal investigator of the project. Much like the aftershocks that come with an earthquake, subsequent and sometimes larger and more intense waves can hit shores a few hours after the initial tsunami wave.