Eye on the Hurricane

Clint Dawson isn’t exactly a thrill-seeker. The soft-spoken engineer has never lived through a hurricane and says the only way he’d agree to see one firsthand is if he could “ride it out in a bunker.” But that isn’t keeping him from surging above others in the field of hurricane research.

As Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast in October, Dawson stayed warm and dry in Austin, crunching numbers at UT’s Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). Instead of chasing storms, Dawson chases data from the past. He uses what we know about past hurricanes to predict the effects of future storms with eerie accuracy. The Cockrell School of Engineering professor has developed a model to predict storm-surge flooding in a specific neighborhood of a city within 18 inches.

“By running really powerful computer models, we can recreate a storm that happened 50 years ago,” Dawson says.

He calls it “hind-casting”—extrapolating from past storms to better prepare for the next big one. Then he shares his data with government agencies and service providers who are making decisions about how to respond to a storm.

Dawson focuses on Texas storms, but he watched the endless TV coverage of Sandy as closely as the rest of us. Mostly, it made him shake his head in frustration. “With Sandy, you saw a lot of coverage of the wind speeds and the category level,” he says, “but neither of those is a reliable metric of the storm’s impact at all. It’s a communication problem.”

The best measure of a storm’s severity, Dawson says, is flooding. “Wind is destructive, but it doesn’t kill people,” he explains. “Flooding does. So if we know how much flooding is going to happen and where, we’re in a much better position.”

Dawson’s ability to protect the Texas coast is heavily dependent on the precision of his data. Luckily, he has two of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, Ranger and Lonestar, at his fingertips. “Without TACC, we would not be able to do what we do,” he says. “It’s incredibly complex math.”

Even tougher than the math, though, is the challenge of translating data into public policy. Far from holing up in the ivory tower, Dawson is working to strengthen connections between academia and policy. “There’s a big push for us to spend more time talking to social scientists, disaster relief folks, and everyone else,” he says. “If we can’t get the message out to the public, then what we do is useless.”

With additional reporting by Rose Cahalan.

Top, Clint Dawson. Bottom, Damage to the MTA New York City Transit system after Hurricane Sandy.

Photos courtesy Clint Dawson; MTA.


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