Researchers Study Hurricane Impact on Gulf Areas

Georgia Tech also helps with training, information and referrals


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Georgia Tech researchers respond to hurricanes

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Georgia Tech is responding to the Gulf Coast hurricane disasters with research, training and service projects that could lead to better infrastructure design, improved port configurations and protection of cleanup and construction workers.


The massive impact of Hurricane Katrina and her cousin Rita this past summer captured the nation's attention and compelled many to respond.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology, experts across campus responded with research, training and service projects. Among their goals are better infrastructure design, configuration of port operations to reduce down time, protection of cleanup and construction workers and accessibility to services and housing for hurricane victims with disabilities.

"During the coming months and years, there will be many opportunities for the talents of our unique community to help our fellow citizens in the impacted areas recover from this stunning disaster," says Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough.

Here we highlight some of the efforts already under way.

Structural Damage and Port Recovery Assessments

With a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering David Frost organized three teams of researchers, including graduate students, to conduct week-long field studies. They assessed infrastructure damage in the Gulf Coast region in September and October.

Frost and his colleagues have conducted numerous post-disaster reconnaissance studies following major natural and human-induced events, including earthquakes in Asia and California, the Indian Ocean tsunami and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

"These studies have yielded significant new insights into both the characteristics of the events as well as the performance of manmade infrastructure subjected to these catastrophic events," notes Frost, who is director of Georgia Tech's Savannah, Ga., campus.

One of the research teams - led by Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Glenn Rix - is determining the link between physical damage from Hurricane Katrina and the operational capacity and recovery of Gulf Coast ports, including the Port of New Orleans. Meanwhile, researchers led by Frost are analyzing wind and storm surge damage data they collected from across the Gulf Coast region.

The studies may help define a zone that is potentially subject to certain types of damage. Then engineers could design structures within a certain distance of the shore to a higher standard than those farther inland, Frost explains. For example, in Savannah, one set of building codes applies to structures on the east side of Interstate 95 and another set to buildings on the west side of the highway.

The researchers collected information along the Gulf Coast, as they have done at other disaster sites in recent years, using integrated digital data collection systems Frost and his colleagues have developed. Included among these are data collection systems -- called P-Quake and P-Damage -- that run on a personal digital assistant (PDA) and incorporate data from handheld GPS devices, digital cameras and digital voice recorders. The systems allow researchers to collect data in a timely way to ensure its quality in an environment where it could potentially perish as cleanup begins, Frost notes.

A second team, led by Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Hermann Fritz of Georgia Tech Savannah, was the first Georgia Tech research group to conduct reconnaissance in the Gulf Coast area in late September and early October.

"Most amazingly, hurricane-proof designed buildings did not suffer major wind damage, even in areas with peak hurricane winds," Fritz notes. "However, all buildings -- even massive structures such as hotels and office buildings, were washed out at the height of the storm surge."

Another team, led by Frost, gathered data along the path of Katrina from the coast northward. "We wanted to assess the overall infrastructure damage," Frost explains.

Frost's team also is making a detailed assessment of structural damage to high-rise buildings. They collected data and will analyze it face by face and floor by floor. "We are trying to determine, for example, why there might have been more damage at a lower level or why one hotel and not the one next to it was damaged," he explains.

The research team led by Rix is focusing on the Gulf Coast ports, including the Port of New Orleans. Collaborating with Rix are Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Reggie DesRoches, Associate Professor of Public Policy Ann Bostrom and Assistant Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering Alan Erera.

Rix and DesRoches made an initial visit to the Port of New Orleans in October, and the entire team plans to follow up with operations managers there several times next year to track the recovery process.

"We are looking at the Port of New Orleans and its response to this natural disaster from a systems-level perspective," Rix explains.

The team's efforts to understand the impact of Katrina and Rita on Gulf Coast ports is closely linked to a recently funded project on seismic risk mitigation at ports as part of the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) program of NSF. In that project, a large group that includes researchers from Georgia Tech, nine other universities and consultants, are studying at methods to reduce the impact of earthquakes on ports. The five-year, $3.6 million project got under way this fall.

"Although the damage to Gulf Coast ports was caused by hurricanes rather than an earthquake, it still provides valuable information on the effects of natural hazards on port operations and will allow us to calibrate our models of how ports respond to significant disruptions," Rix notes.

In a related project done under the auspices of the American Society of Civil Engineers' (ASCE) Technical Committee on Lifelines and Earthquake Engineering, DesRoches and his collaborators spent several days gathering data on the damage that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on bridges and the transportation network in the Gulf Coast region.

The information they collect will be used in computer models for earthquake recovery prediction, DesRoches explains. In addition, the data may help improve infrastructure design and rehabilitation of existing infrastructure, he notes.

"We're trying to determine the impact of damage on the recovery process," DesRoches explains. "Our models will help us make projections about the impact of an earthquake -- in particular in Charleston, S.C., should another major earthquake, like the one in 1886, occur again."

This project is funded by the Mid-America Earthquake Center (MAEC), which is supported by NSF, and ASCE.

"This research is a rare learning event, an opportunity to see first hand the impact of such a natural disaster," DesRoches says. "We do a lot of simulation and experimental work in our lab. But you cannot learn this kind of information in a lab or simulation. You have to learn it in the field."

Health and Safety Training and Information

To help train workers involved in cleanup and rebuilding in the Gulf Coast and south Florida areas damaged by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) awarded a one-year, $400,000 Susan Harwood Training Grant to the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) on Sept. 30.

GTRI researchers led by project director and senior research engineer Paul Schlumper developed and are providing training materials and conducting training sessions that address occupational and safety health hazards that may be encountered by disaster recovery workers, supervisors and employers.

"Work zone safety and fall protection for people who are working on roofs is OSHA's top priority for us," says Dan Ortiz, chief of the Occupational Safety and Health Division in GTRI's Health and Environmental Systems Laboratory. "…. Our concern is that in the zeal to remove debris and restore buildings, workers and employers will take shortcuts. We want to have resources out there to make sure workers have the proper protective equipment and knowledge of environmental hazards."

In a related GTRI effort, researchers are collaborating with colleagues at Louisiana State University (LSU) to provide information to residents and contractors in the region on the health and environmental hazards they may face as they clean up and renovate hurricane-damaged homes. Senior research scientist Bob Schmitter is leading the Georgia Tech portion of the project, which is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through its regional Technical Outreach Services to Communities (TOSC) programs operated by Georgia Tech and LSU (Regions 4 and 6, respectively).

Among the hazards homeowners face are asbestos, lead-based paint, mold and various hazardous materials, Schmitter notes. TOSC experts compiled written information and distributed it to residents in shelters and home improvement stores.

Waste Disposal and Recycling

In addition, at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, GTRI researchers are evaluating the feasibility of using a GTRI-designed plasma furnace system to dispose of some of the tremendous volume of debris in the region.

"There's not enough landfill space available to handle this much waste, and open burning of it would pose such a huge environmental problem," says senior research scientist Ken Johnson.

GTRI's plasma pyrolysis gasification system uses plasma arc technology, which creates a form of "artificial lightning," using electricity to convert an ionized gas, such as air, into a plasma state. The extremely hot plasma temperature can gasify organic wastes into low-BTU fuel gases and melt inorganic wastes into an inert rock-like glassy residue.

To date, the furnace system has been used in the lab only. GTRI's laboratory model could be transported to the Gulf Region and handle 12 tons of waste a day. But the need exists for a mobile system that could handle 1,000 tons a day. Johnson has discussed construction of such a system with a company that could build it quickly.

Referrals for Hurricane Victims with Disabilities

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA and the American Red Cross listed in its victim hotline database a Georgia Tech-based center that promotes voluntary compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Hurricane victims with disabilities misunderstood the center's mission, though, and flooded it with calls about all kinds of relief and assistance.

The Southeast Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center (DBTAC) housed at the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access in the Georgia Tech College of Architecture was inundated with over 2,200 calls in the month following Katrina over its toll free hotline (1-800-949-4232). So the Southeast DBTAC, funded since 1991 by the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, became a referral center, says assistant project director Pamela Williamson.

People sought housing assistance, general financial assistance, food, information on how to get prescriptions filled, replacement of various assistive devices and medical equipment that were lost or damaged in the storm and answers to insurance questions. DBTAC staff even handled some calls from potentially suicidal hurricane victims.

Though DBTAC's grant does not cover any of these services, staff members compiled a resource list to use to refer callers to the correct organizations.

"We tried to be as customer-service oriented as possible," Williamson says. "We already had some of the referral agencies in our database, but we added many more to our list so we could help hurricane victims with disabilities."

In light of its response to Katrina, the Southeast DBTAC has revamped its work scope in Mississippi for the coming year to focus its efforts on providing ADA-related assistance to hurricane victims with disabilities. These efforts include ensuring that temporary housing is accessible, providing interpreters for people who are deaf so they can communicate with relief organizations and working with contractors to ensure that rebuilding is done in accordance with ADA Standards for Accessible Design.

Research News & Publications Office
Georgia Institute of Technology
75 Fifth Street, N.W., Suite 100
Atlanta, Georgia 30308 USA

Media Relations Contacts: Jane Sanders (404-894-2214); E-mail: ( or John Toon (404-894-6986); E-mail: (

Technical Contacts:
1) David Frost at 912-966-7948 or
2) Glenn Rix at 404-894-2292 or
3) Hermann Fritz at 912-966-7947 or
4) Reginald DesRoches at 404 385-0826 or
5) Dan Ortiz at 404-894-8276 or
6) Paul Schlumper at 404-385-1797 or
7) Ken Johnson at 404-894-8075 or
8) Shelley Kaplan at 404-385-0636 or

Writer: Jane Sanders

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  • Created By: John Toon
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Nov 8, 2005 - 8:00pm
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 11:03pm