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Texas A&M professor advises Congress on windstorm issues

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Photo by Photo by Jesse Everett

Oceanography professor Steven Dimarco explains how the buoy system protects the Gulf. 

Walter Peacock, professor of urban planning in the department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning in the College of Architecture at Texas A&M served for about eight months on a committee that recently submitted a proposal to Congress regarding windstorms and how to mitigate the losses they often cause.
“Windstorm risk includes tornados, hurricanes, when it includes hurricanes, it also then includes surge and inland flooding and also coastal flooding of a great variety of different types,” Peacock said.
According to Peacock, the Wind Risk Reduction program, created in 2015, drafted a plan with proposed changes to federal agencies like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in order to reduce losses from windstorms.
“There was a committee that was also created to actually evaluate that plan and to make suggestions on changes to that plan, and that’s the committee that I served on,” Peacock said.
According to Peacock, his committee, the Advisory Committee of the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program, was comprised of top scientists, engineers and social scientists from across the US. Their main goal is to promote cooperation between the various federal agencies involved in disaster relief and prevention. Peacock said there was a consensus on what had to change.
“We cannot look at natural hazards as if they are a physical process only,” Peacock said.
According to Peacock, the physical and environmental costs of devastating windstorms are intertwined with human and social costs, and to analyze one without considering the other would be incomplete and incorrect. For that reason, Peacock said the committee strongly supported direct collaboration between NOAA, NSF and agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Peacock also said the committee stressed the importance of engineering, and how scientists must work together to provide stable, safe housing in high-risk areas.
“It’s not just how we build, it’s where we build and it’s what we build where and everything else that’s involved in that,” Peacock said.
John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist and regents professor at A&M said there is an urgency to the situation as well.
“We expect that the strongest hurricanes will become even stronger, so we’ll see more of the strong Category 4 and Category 5, and probably fewer of the weak ones,” Nielsen-Gammon said.
According to Peacock, the amended proposal was submitted several months ago, but Congress did not specify when they would look at it or take action on the suggestions within. However, on the state level, there are agencies and groups trying to accomplish the same goals.
According to Steven Dimarco, oceanography professor and team leader for ocean observing at the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG) at A&M, accurate information about a hurricane is crucial to scientists and engineers, and that is a large part of what the researchers at GERG are trying to do.
“You have satellites in the air, and you have wind monitors and sensors all over the land, but it’s really hard to put stuff in the ocean,” Dimarco said. “We have a system that’s designed from its very onset to measure currents in the oceanographic environment that could pick up data during a hurricane.”
Dimarco, along with the team at GERG, operate the Texas Automated Buoy System (TABS), which consists of nine buoys off the coast of Texas that measure temperature, salinity and the velocity of currents in the Gulf of Mexico.
During Hurricane Harvey, TABS was the only source of accurate measurements of wind and current speeds in the hurricane while it was still over the ocean. The data, updated online in intervals ranging from a few minutes to an hour depending on the measurement, was available to meteorologists and scientists across the US.
Ali Mostafavi, civil engineering assistant professor, said Harvey inflicted so much damage on Houston in part because of the city’s aging infrastructure – namely the flood control reservoirs that were supposed to collect floodwater from other parts of the city.
“Since these reservoirs were old, the operators needed to release water in order to eliminate a breach in the reservoirs which could have a more catastrophic impact,” Mostafavi said. “As a result, about four thousand homes got flooded just because of the water release from the reservoirs.”
According to Mostafavi, this was just one example of how Houston’s old infrastructure affected the city’s ability to handle the volume of water. Peacock said Harvey’s distruction and how to handle it was a point of emphasis for the committee.
The committee’s suggestions, however, were not for hurricanes alone. According to Peacock, one of the scientists on the committee was a stormchaser who actively pursued tornados in the hopes of learning more about them. Maria Koliou, civil engineering assistant professor at A&M, has been working on tornado recovery simulations as well.
“What I have been working on is on the numerical simulations to identify the performance in built infrastructure under tornado loads,” Koliou said.
Koliou’s work focuses on determining how long repairs take after a tornado destroys a town, and how costly they are. As a trial for the simulations, Koliou said she used the 2011 tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, the costliest tornado in US history.`
Koliou said she chose Joplin both because it was an extreme event and because the community’s recovery has been documented fairly well.
“It’s a hindcast study that we have been working on to predict the post-tornado functionality of buildings six years after the event,” Koliou said. “We know how the community has recovered, and we have been to Joplin, we have gathered data, but now we are working on to hindcast the buildings recovery trajectory.”
Koliou said she can calibrate the simulation models to accurately reproduce what actually happened in Joplin after the tornado. Such a simulation, according to Koliou, could then be applied to other communities to predict what areas would take the longest to recover.

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