East Coast community is test bed for disaster-recovery research

flooded home

A home destroyed by flooding in Lumberton, North Carolina. Water undermined the house and collapsed part of the floor system. The home will need to be condemned and demolished in the coming months for safety. 

When Hurricane Matthew struck the southeastern United States in October, hundreds of communities sustained massive damage to homes, hospitals, schools, libraries and bridges.

Among them was Lumberton, North Carolina. Colorado State University researchers are now studying Lumberton to determine how it and other communities respond to and recover from natural disasters.

A team from the CSU-led Center for Risk-Based Community Resilience Planning launched a longitudinal field study of Lumberton in the immediate aftermath of Matthew, which triggered flooding of the nearby Lumber River. Heavy rain and flooding shut down schools and roads and drove people from their homes, and the town is expected to spend the next several years rebuilding and recovering. The researchers just completed a weeklong field study in Lumberton, with plans to visit again several times over the next year.

NIST center vehicle
One of the NIST Center’s vehicles during the site visit to Lumberton. In the background is a commercial restoration team. Credit: Nathanael Rosenheim

“We are trying to understand the initial conditions of a community just after a disaster, in order to study it over time as it recovers,” said John van de Lindt, professor of civil engineering, who co-leads the Center for Risk-Based Community Resilience Planning with Bruce Ellingwood, also a civil engineering professor.

NIST Center of Excellence

The multi-institutional center was established by a five-year, $20 million grant awarded in 2015 by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. One of only three NIST “Centers of Excellence” in the U.S., the center is devoted to helping local governments, nonprofits and other agencies invest resources to lessen the impact of hazards like flood, fire or damaging storms.

The center, which draws from 10 universities across the U.S., is composed of both engineers and social scientists, who are studying all the factors – including, but not limited to infrastructure – that go into making a community more or less resilient to disasters. These range from socioeconomic factors and demographics to access to state and federal funds.

At the heart of the center’s mission is creating a reliable model that can quantify resiliency factors and lead to practical recommendations for communities to implement before disaster strikes. As such, a community like Lumberton, by providing real data that the scientists will use to validate their model, could prove critical for helping others remain steadfast in the face of future emergencies.

Field campaign

Van de Lindt organized the weeklong fact-finding mission to Lumberton in late November into early December. The field campaign included about 20 researchers who interviewed 180 homeowners and completed close to 500 damage surveys to determine various impacts of the hurricane.

One of those researchers was postdoctoral fellow Maria Koliou, who studies multi-hazard, performance-based design under van de Lindt’s supervision. Lumberton was Koliou’s first field experience.

Evaluating Lumberton will help the team uncover “recovery paths” for businesses and households, and how these paths can affect the resilience of the community over time, Koliou said. “Furthermore, the outcomes and conclusions of evaluating the recovery of Lumberton following the flooding will be beneficial for identifying risk-informed decision and policymaking,” she said.

A team from Texas A&M University, one of the NIST center partners, is in charge of determining the sociological factors that contribute to resilient communities.

Van de Lindt has led other post-disaster recovery surveys, including in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – but the center’s work goes deeper than damage estimates or improvement of building codes.

“Back then we were looking at things like improving a code or a standard, to make suggestions or develop guidelines,” van de Lindt said. “It was useful in its own right, but not from a community resilience standpoint.”