USF researchers work to create a safer, more prepared Florida for hurricane season
The 2023 hurricane season has officially begun and University of South Florida researchers are exploring ways to increase safety and preparedness across the state.
The devastation from Hurricane Ian – a deadly Category 4 storm that made landfall in September 2022 – will be burned into the memories of many for years to come. The catastrophic storm trapped people in their homes, destroyed parts of the electric grid and washed away sections of the Sanibel Causeway bridge, cutting the Sanibel and Captiva Islands off from the rest of the state.
Through interdisciplinary research, USF is investigating solutions to many of the horrors faced during storms like Ian.
Exploring innovative structural engineering
Assistant Professor Zachary Haber in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is exploring novel, sustainable structural engineering solutions that can better withstand the powerful effects of natural disasters, including hurricanes. His goal is to develop design and construction guidance that can be used by bridge engineers.
Haber joined USF in January after eight years with the U.S. Department of Transporation’s Federal Highway Administration. In his lab, HaberLab, he’s testing new technologies to make bridges and other transportation infrastructure stronger and last longer.
“We apply mechanical loads using specialized machines,” Haber said. “We push the materials to the point of destruction.”
His focus is on ultra-high-performance concrete, an innovative fiber-reinforced, cement-based material that is five times stronger and 10 times more durable than conventional concrete.
Haber’s research is a new application of the material – for bridge infrastructure preservation and repair, it offers enhanced performance, increased resiliency and improved life-cycle costs over traditional materials.
“The durability and strength of traditional materials don’t always meet situational needs of the structure,” Haber said. “If a bridge is repaired with a material that deteriorates within 10 years, the same issue will need to be readdressed again and again, but this composite material provides a more innovative and permanent solution.”
Simulating extreme stress on power grids
Inside USF’s Smart Grid Power Systems Laboratory, electrical engineering Professor Lingling Fan helps electric companies across the nation evaluate the vulnerability of a power grid during extreme power grid events, such as a hurricane.
“We rely on computer simulations to examine the performance of a power grid,” Fan said. “Depending on the level of detail included and the purpose of examination, computer simulation can take a few seconds to a few hours.”
Fan says when preparing for a hurricane, power plants usually proactively shut down certain areas ahead of the storm to increase safety, avoid serious damage and shorten restoration time post-storm. This can lead to uncontrolled blackouts for large demographic areas.
Through real-time digital simulators with powerful computing capabilities, Fan is able to evaluate how many people are impacted by shut-downs, develop detailed restoration plans and test various techniques to avoid blackouts, damage to equipment and delays in restoration of power – providing information of great value to power grid operators.
Preparing vulnerable populations
College of Public Health Instructor Elizabeth Dunn is preparing refugee women from all around the world for hurricane season. Many of them are from Ukraine and Sudan and haven’t been exposed to weather events common in Florida.
“Being new to Florida, the majority of the women are not familiar with hurricane threats and what to do to prepare,” Dunn said. “My goal is to create a safe, comfortable environment while providing them with the necessary tools to protect themselves and their families during a hurricane.”
Many of Dunn’s former students have volunteered to lead a hurricane and disaster preparedness workshop for refugee women at Refugee & Migrant Women’s Initiative, Inc. The students were inspired by their experiences in Dunn’s public health course, where they were each paired with a refugee woman to develop evacuation plans and explain flood zones, shelters and hurricane kit essentials.
Each summer, Dunn remains in contact with the women and even touches base with those with additional needs ahead of impending hurricanes.
Understanding the decision to evacuate or shelter in place
Dunn is also working with a group of students to analyze data from Hurricane Ian to better understand decision-making during disasters. Through a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates grant awarded to geosciences Professor Jennifer Collins and Professor Robin Ersing, director of the School of Public Affairs, the students will analyze decisions made during Hurricane Ian.
They’ll compare survey respondents’ perceptions of Hurricane Ian’s storm surge predictions, as well as the visualization of the hurricane track cone, with their evacuation decision-making. The goal is to better understand the respondents’ hurricane preparedness and their risk perceptions that ultimately led to their decision to shelter in place, go to an emergency shelter or evacuate elsewhere.
“Understanding why people evacuate or why they don’t evacuate, including barriers which may prevent them from doing so, helps us,” Collins said. “We work with local emergency managers to inform them, so it helps with their hurricane planning, including allocation of resources.”
Collins says this research is especially important to understand why vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, are choosing not to evacuate.
Protecting the elderly by identifying gaps in emergency management
Lindsay Peterson, assistant professor in the School of Aging Studies, is studying how to protect the elderly and nursing home residents during natural disasters.
“The trend is showing us that climate disasters are becoming more destructive and occurring more suddenly than in the past, and this makes having a disaster response plan all the more important for people who have difficulty responding quickly to a threat,” Peterson said.
In her recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Peterson provides evidence of continuing gaps in emergency management of nursing home operations, despite it being recognized as a critical element of operations.
Peterson is working with the Alzheimer’s Association and 211 Tampa Bay Cares on a disaster preparedness guide and a video series to help older adults prepare for disasters, particularly family caregivers of people with dementia. In the series, Peterson discusses where to find evacuation zone information, how to prepare a home for a hurricane and where to go during evacuations.
To further aid older adults with the decision of whether to evacuate or shelter-in-place, Peterson is developing an app in collaboration with the Muma College of Business.
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