The University of Missouri-Rolla is one of 19 entities in the state selected to receive funding on a competitive basis through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for local pre-disaster planning and mitigation.
UMR received official notification of the grant Dec. 29. Researchers led by David Hoffman, an associate research engineer at UMR, will use the money – approximately $80,000 – to study the campus and identify areas of concern.
“First we do a plan for the campus,” says Hoffman, “by evaluating vulnerabilities using multiple disaster scenarios.”
In addition to potential damage caused by tornadoes, floods and earthquakes, the team will assess risks to the campus associated with nuclear, chemical and hazardous materials threats. Hoffman says the UMR team will also look at “man-made” hazards, including those potentially caused by terrorism.
Then they will make official recommendations to the university for improvements. If UMR puts up 25 percent of the money for future mitigation modifications, the federal government will pledge the rest.
Dr. Ronaldo Luna, an associate professor of civil engineering at UMR, is working with Hoffman on the project. “Ultimately, the federal government pays for disasters,” says Luna, who notes that UMR submitted its pre-disaster mitigation proposal to FEMA before Hurricane Katrina. “This is a program to promote preparation for disasters through universities. Like with other things, universities can lead the way.”
FEMA’s initiative to support pre-disaster planning on campuses started at universities like the University of California-Berkeley, which is in a high-risk area for earthquakes, and the University of Washington, which is located near a subduction zone that creates earthquakes and volcanoes.
UMR already operates the Natural Hazards Mitigation Institute in Rolla. Through the NHMI, engineers and other researchers try to develop strategies and influence decisions that will lessen damage and casualties from future disasters in Missouri and elsewhere.
Last October, Luna and Hoffman led a team from the mitigation institute to New Orleans, where they studied hurricane damage before evidence of engineering failures disappeared in the clean-up. By doing this type of autopsy work at the scene, the team from Rolla hopes to be able to study the data in order to come to some conclusions about how to prevent similar failures in other areas where hurricanes are likely to hit.
Meanwhile, in Rolla, the UMR pre-disaster plan will be developed. It could include recommendations for strengthening structures on campus or building shelters. “People think, ‘we’re not California or New Orleans,’” Luna says. “People think it’s not going to happen here, until it actually happens to them. Missouri has had significant tornadoes, floods and earthquakes before.
“If we aren’t prepared, the costs are always higher in the long run.”
Luna thinks the United States should learn from Japan, which has learned from past events like typhoons, earthquakes and atomic bombs. “Japan is very aggressive,” says Luna, who recently returned from a conference in Osaka. “Even the kids know what to do. They have museums dedicated to disasters, instead of trying to hide bad memories.”