This UT-Developed Platform Is Helping Speed Up Natural Hazards Research

One year ago, Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, bringing unforgiving 130-mph winds and more than 27 trillion gallons of rain that displaced thousands and left the area in a state of disaster. The storm, which caused around $125 billion in damage, was only the first in a series of deadly events around the world to follow—including a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in Mexico and devastating monsoon flooding in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. As we continue to see an increase in these natural disasters across the globe, a new online platform developed at UT is helping natural hazards researchers from around the world come together to manage, analyze, and share data that will help prevent these events from becoming societal disasters.

The program, called DesignSafe, is the result of a $13.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to UT in 2015, as well as countless hours of collaboration with Rice University, the Florida Institute of Technology, and other researchers. The Texas Advanced Computing Center acts as the host for the platform, providing the capability to store and analyze large masses of data as well as run simulations related to natural hazards.

“Our goal is to provide the tools that researchers need to do better, more improved research,” says Ellen Rathje, a civil engineering professor and the project’s principal investigator. “We really want to allow them to do things that they couldn’t do before.”

These new capabilities include a place for researchers to upload, store, share, and publish data on information like hurricane wind speeds or the specific damage a tornado caused to steel structures. With the help of data analysis and visualization tools, access to high-performance computing, and an online network of collaborators, Rathje says the program is enabling research to be shared in the field in a way it wasn’t before.

“These researchers would collect this data, go analyze it, and then it would end up in their filing cabinet when they were done,” Rathje says. “Through DesignSafe, those teams are publishing that data online for use by not only their research team, but research teams across the country.”

The online portal is a part of the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure network, which is aimed at increasing resilience in the face of extreme environmental events. Dan Stanzione, executive director of TACC, says Hurricane Harvey was an important example of how improving infrastructure is a key factor in this resilience, as the storm caused catastrophic damage to thousands of homes. To study this impact, reconnaissance data teams utilized DesignSafe to store thousands of images and field notes of the damage, and the portal served as a place to conduct flood modeling so first responders as well as civilians could learn what kind of flood damage there was in a house. Stanzione says this data can help inform natural hazards research engineers and aid in the rebuilding process.

“There’s nothing we do in DesignSafe that would stop a hurricane from happening, obviously, but a lot of it is how can we change building codes and infrastructure to make sure we can be more resilient in the case of future ones,” Stanzione says.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2017 was the costliest year on record for natural disasters in the U.S., coming in at a total of $306 billion in damage. Being able to build structures to withstand hazards and relieve these costs is crucial, and Rathje says because DesignSafe helps speed up research, the time it takes for infrastructure improvements to be implemented after a disaster will shorten also.

“I think the most important thing is because we appear to be seeing this increase in rate of these events, it’s even more critical that we can accelerate this cycle of bringing new developments into practice,” Rathje says.

Port Arthur, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey. Photo via Wiki Commons/U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez


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