Texas A&M University’s goal in its disaster relief and prevention efforts is to mitigate devastation while simultaneously collecting new data to spark ongoing research efforts; efforts that will help the state of Texas reduce the impact of future disasters.
Those goals were put into practice in summer 2017 in the reaction from alumni, faculty and even students to Hurricane Harvey. Take Austin Seth, a senior at Texas A&M University at Galveston, who saw a Facebook post requesting help from boat owners and jumped into action, driving an hour from Galveston with boat in tow to rescue more than a dozen citizens.
“Selfless service is one of our core values,” says Dunae Crenwelge, marketing communications manager for the Texas A&M Foundation, the 501(c)(3) arm of the university. Together, the foundation and university partnered to set up dedicated funds for relief efforts, raising and distributing $165,000 in aid to Aggie students, staff and faculty with immediate needs.
Texas A&M’s innovative research also plays a critical role in assuaging urgent concerns, then offering long-term solutions to help minimize or prevent devastation from future events. It’s the combination of compassionate service and research expertise that prompted the governor to appoint John Sharp, Chancellor of The Texas A&M University System, to lead the Commission to Rebuild Texas. Here is a sampling of the university’s impacting work and projects.
During a crisis there is often a barrage of information but a lack of reliable reports. The app Disaster IQ, created during the “AggiE_Challenge,” an annual research project where a multidisciplinary team of students address a societal challenge, aims to help manage information flow while providing insights to help create more resilient communities.
“When the project started in August, of course we had no clue that Hurricane Harvey would strike, offering an opportunity to deploy it almost immediately,” says Ali Mostafavi, project faculty advisor for Design IQ and an assistant professor in the university’s Zachry Department of Civil Engineering.
One of Disaster IQ’s functions is to convert massive data into actionable information to help people make better on-the-ground decisions. For example, Mostafavi’s team learned that people were relying on social media for credible reports on water levels to determine how close the threat was to their home. But Mostafavi says they soon realized that citizens were finding emerging “influencers” who were gathering and sharing information just like public officials. One influencer account spiked from 8,000 to 300,000 followers, indicating the need for agencies to include these ad hoc advisors in communication plans.
Mostafavi says they also studied Twitter patterns and concluded that a new tweet from an account will supplant interaction with the previous one. His group shared that insight to advise officials to consistently repeat critical information, such as evacuation updates, so they wouldn’t get lost in the stream.
After this first successful trial, the team is continuing to develop the app with the intention of releasing it to municipalities to promote better disaster response. “Our goal is never to conduct research that is going to sit on a shelf,” Mostafavi says.
There’s no substitute for on-the-ground recon as communities rebuild. That’s why the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service devised a communication system between an existing network of university employees and local officials, such as city mayors and school superintendents in the 42 counties affected by Harvey.
The school’s representatives visited government leaders for a daily debrief on the main issues affecting the local jurisdiction, which they reported to an on-campus assistance center using an app called Survey 1, 2, 3. They briefly described each issue, categorized it using FEMA designations and assigned it a priority number.
“This was the first time our county extension agents have been deployed like this, but we expect that municipalities might use this as a model for future disasters," says Monty Dozier, special assistant for Rebuild Texas. “Since these liaisons were already local and knew the elected officials, it was much easier to get the information they needed on a micro level each day.”
Applications immediately deployed to assist in the wake of Harvey were crucial, but the best time to plan for a crisis is before it happens. That’s why Shannon Van Zandt’s ongoing research agenda is focused on lessening exposure to disaster by making recommendations for land use planning and building codes and regulations that promote resilience.
Van Zandt heads the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning in the College of Architecture. She has been researching the effects of disasters in Texan communities and using the findings to create a best-practices document. She then conducts training around the state to help communities see the benefits of advance planning.
“Since most communities have limited resources, preparing for disasters often doesn’t top their priority list,” she says. “But we want them to recognize that we can save lives and property over time by taking steps to reduce vulnerability.”
Already her team has helped communities in La Grange, Texas, decide to relocate certain housing, moving mobile home parks from the banks of the Colorado River to more appropriate land.
“In the long run, it’s less expensive and more effective to focus on land use planning and rebuilding in naturally higher areas,” she says. “Policymakers and taxpayers want to use funds wisely, and moving homes is one low-cost way to protect people and property.”
Similarly, Van Zandt says she’d recommend Houston housing be recited at higher elevations whenever possible, as an alternative to focusing solely on adding physical barriers such as dams and levees.
Other lower-cost solutions include those developed by Jennifer Horney, who studies the health impacts of disaster on communities in the university’s School of Public Health. Horney and her students partnered with the regional office of the Texas Department of State Health Services both during and immediately after Hurricane Harvey to gather water samples and measure the effects of the rain on soils in local yards and parks. Now, their work is focused on ongoing research to offer ideas for redesigning vacant lots to absorb more flood water, utilizing solutions like plants and berms that can have a significant impact on preventing flooding with minimal investment.
As the devastation of Hurricane Harvey recedes, Texas A&M researchers are committed to keeping future-proofing top of mind with ongoing efforts to safeguard Texans.