Prompt 1: What challenges or opportunities have you identified in terms of conducting rapid reconnaissance research?
New technologies are being employed by National Science Foundation-sponsored Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance (GEER) teams to capture ground deformation and its effects. These technologies include light detection and ranging, Structure-from-Motion, and unmanned aerial vehicles. New, unanticipated observations from major events often define alternative research directions. As an example, the results of recent studies of liquefaction of soils with a significant amount of fines have been largely motivated by observations documented by GEER reconnaissance efforts. Important advancements are possible through research of extreme events if their effects are captured and shared effectively.
This research was an extension of a larger project from an undergraduate sociology of disaster class. During the class, we trained the undergraduate students in institutional review board protocols, research ethics, and qualitative methods. Following the training process, we used the undergraduates' social networks, and gained access to other college students who were enrolled during the 2016 Louisiana Flood. Students interviewed two of their friends who were affected by the flood, and used snowball sampling to find more participants. By utilizing the social networks of undergraduate students, we were able to gain a wide range of responses from a sample that was demographically diverse. Because the class was an elective, some students did not participate fully in the assignment. We collected additional interviews using snowball sampling through the primary researcher's social networks, the co-author's undergraduate courses, and other undergraduate sociology courses offered during the Fall 2017 semester. Future research using undergrads to collect interviews may divide the tasks among the students, rather than having all students conduct two interviews.
Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey affected over 70 percent of Harris County alone, isolating many areas of the city of Houston and its suburbs. In gathering our samples, it was necessary to act quickly in order to obtain data for this specific extreme rain event. Access to affected areas was our primary problem. The day after the storm subsided, lab members were traveling across the suburbs of Houston to gather grab samples. However, we faced challenges from the nature of the floodwaters and in the interest of safety; certain areas were impassable or even restricted by law enforcement officers. We resorted to contacting personal friends and colleagues, including affected homeowners, to provide water samples. In most cases, these were collected simply using available plastic containers (e.g., commercial water bottles), which were not necessarily well-suited for water quality sampling.
The largest challenge my team has faced is gaining access to school districts directly after a natural disaster. In our study, we are interested in investigating how school districts responded to Hurricanes Harvey (Texas) and Matthew (North Carolina). We anticipated encountering difficulty with gaining access to school districts in North Carolina, since Hurricane Matthew made landfall over one year ago. We also assumed school districts in Texas would readily grant us access given the recent impact of Hurricane Harvey. In reality, we encountered little to no issues with gaining access to North Carolina districts and received significant obstacles with accessing Texas districts. Administrators in Texas agreed that the recent storm provided them with an abundance of activities; however, none accounted for participating in a research study. This challenge has forced us to re-focus on building trust with school districts that were recently impacted by a hurricane to improve access.
There are two key challenges and two key opportunities we identified in the preliminary analyses. The challenges are: accessing transient and vulnerable populations with companion animals and deciding the most effective way to disseminate policy recommendations to program coordinators. These elements are linked to ongoing communication with stakeholders who focus on different phases of hazard and companion animal issues. The opportunities are: identifying themes outside the scope of the research questions that are useful for other policy recommendations (e.g., we found that pet reunification can be a powerful catalyst for community trap, neuter, and return (TNR), and the power of utilizing participant social capital for data collection. We argue that this goes beyond typical “snowball” sampling techniques because of the way that animal rescue groups network and interact through various forums, such as social media.
This work is single-disciplinary, making aspects of the project straightforward. However, we’ve encountered challenges for successful informant and organizational recruitment. In past studies that took place in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in coastal New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy, we found that informants would not complete close ended surveys. Instead, they were very motivated to “tell their story,” providing rich, detailed accounts of the work they did throughout the disaster. To improve recall in such interviews, one effective strategy we’ve utilized is to have the informants review old emails, texts, memos, calendars, schedules, and task lists. This exercise also facilitates their willingness to share such information. We are also generating innovative approaches to sharable archived data. One of the biggest challenges with such data is redacting identities and business names, as promised to our informants.
Our work to develop and validate the concept of mobile energy storage units that can provide backup flexibility to power grids enhanced the flexibility of infrastructure planners to preventatively mitigate the effects of natural disasters on the power grid integrity. Furthermore, we demonstrated that strategic allocation of transportable back resources (e.g., energy storage) can significantly improve post-disaster recovery.
The main challenge of conducting rapid reconnaissance research in an island community is accessibility. The U.S. Virgin Islands were cut off from the mainland immediately after two Category 5 hurricanes in 2017. Communication was paralyzed for months after the disaster. The airport was damaged, and limited flights were not resumed until a month later. Due to closed ports and customs delays, cargo was not reaching the islands within any reasonable time. There was no local transportation system, and roads were damaged by flood. We relied on an oceangoing research vessel to transport our field supplies to St. Thomas. Our field campaign was only possible because of project collaborator Dr. Kellogg’s intimate familiarity with St. Thomas and her network of family and friends on the island. We set up a field laboratory on a small charter boat and used a portable generator to provide electricity for field sample processing.
This study examined the associations between respondents' immediate responses and their later evacuation behaviors to a rapid onset flood emergency, which provides a clearer picture about households' behavioral responses in the period of an emergency.
This research experience challenged our team in the development of a lean and agile approach to empower local data collection in post-disaster settings with significant resource constraints. Remotely deploying a large-scale household survey in Haiti was a daunting task. The first challenge was in the development of a pair of survey instruments that could enable comparative analysis with a companion dataset collected in North Carolina, translating complex concepts that may not culturally resonate in Haiti. The second challenge was in the need to develop a randomized sampling strategy in a post-disaster setting lacking census data and formal addresses, and with respondents in various stages of transitional sheltering; in this case, this was accomplished through the clever use of existing mobile apps. The third challenge was in how to enable all of this to unfold reliably with the authors in the United States for the entirety of the data collection, most notably through the use of Fulcrum.
Hurricane Harvey exposed thousands of citizens and responders to floodwaters that contained high levels of fecal indicator bacteria (FIB), suggesting a public health risk. However, this risk changed rapidly; levels of FIB returned to pre-storm levels within in a week. Tracking such changes is challenging, in part because methods widely used to assess the risk of infectious disease from exposure to water contaminated with microbes remain fundamentally unchanged since the nineteenth century. Culturing FIB requires at least one day to generate results. Molecular techniques, such as the quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), can give results within hours, but generally require dedicated laboratory facilities and highly trained personnel. Further, power outages, travel disruptions, and facility closures following natural disasters can present logistical challenges. To prepare for future extreme weather events, we need to develop and validate rapid field methods of quantifying microbial contamination of water. The point of collection methods could include portable qPCR machines and handheld DNA sequencers.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, over 300 organizations coordinated volunteers after Hurricane Harvey, including the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, who deployed over 3,000 and 4,000 volunteers, respectively. There are many challenges that emerge as a result of so many organizations and individuals being involved with responding to disasters. For example, information sharing and coordination among organizations is a major challenge. Perhaps an even more significant challenge is access to reliable data, given that several aspects of disaster response logistics are performed with limited information technology compared to commercial logistics systems. Opportunities exist to define macro- and micro-level processes for post-disaster relief distribution systems.
Real-time data acquisition from geo-sensors and airborne and spaceborne platforms are new geospatial technology developments with the potential to improve rapid reconnaissance. Our findings highlight the need for a more systematic and sustained approach to pre- and post-disaster research and data collection in rural and underserved communities that suffer power loss and critical infrastructure disruptions after a disaster. In the United States, critical infrastructure is predominantly owned by the private sector and user cooperatives. There is also a general lack of alignment of political-administrative boundaries and hazard boundaries with utility operating boundaries (e.g., Hurricane Katrina impacted a large area encompassing 33 electricity service providers). Disaster response following hurricanes Harvey and Irma demonstrated how the use of drone technology could facilitate search and rescue operations and support the restoration of infrastructure services. Addressing these data collection issues and partnerships will ensure that the outcomes from rapid reconnaissance research are useful.
While conducting rapid reconnaissance research in Haiti and Nepal, the researchers identified several challenges, including logistical challenges, especially in terms of accommodations and transportation; institutional review board (IRB) challenges, both from U.S. and international IRBs (e.g., the countrywide IRB in Haiti, which meets infrequently and requires translation of all documents into French); fieldwork blues, since it is exhausting to conduct interviews that are compressed in time with those affected by disasters; and ethical challenges in the field (e.g., what to do when affected populations ask researchers for monetary help). Potential solutions to these challenges include understanding the target community prior to embarking on fieldwork, having flexibility in the field to deal with unexpected issues and problems, planning ahead for IRB approvals, forming research collaborations, and having strategies in place to manage stress and ethically important moments in the field.
One of the challenges in conducting rapid reconnaissance research is the ability to mobilize resources to gather critical samples and data to assess the impacts of disasters. Furthermore, due to the inherent uncertainty in foreseeing the impacts of disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey, necessary resources may not be readily available for timely sampling. In this regard, we will focus on the development of a standard procedure to enable training of students for sampling and analysis in an emergency response mode. The procedure will be based on existing protocols with potential modifications in sampling, storage, and analysis, while ensuring integrity in the data quality.
Conducting rapid reconnaissance research is critical given the immediacy of hurricanes and severe storms, in stark contrast with their acute and chronic effects on the environment. Most resources pre- and post-hurricanes and severe storms are allocated to evacuation, search and rescue, and recovery. Far less planning, strategy development, and preparedness is undertaken where chemical hazards and pollutants are concerned. Rapid reconnaissance requires resources, including funding, mobile laboratories, teams of trained personnel, and safe access. Such activities also require supporting data capture and dissemination, and engagement and coordination with stakeholders. Importantly, rapid reconnaissance requires extensive knowledge of system behavior and associated hazards and risks to maximize knowledge gained post-event. The opportunities offered via rapid reconnaissance, however, cannot be understated: an in-depth understanding of system response to extreme events, mitigation of pollution, demystifying health hazards and quantifying risks for public health, and developing conceptual models of system recovery.
Social media and new information and communication technology tools have allowed rapid recruitment and redeployment of resources by emergent, or informal, organizations. For example, during the Hurricane Harvey response, these organizations communicated via hashtags, such as #RedNeckNavy and #SOSHarvey, or apps like Zello that allow walkie-talkie type communications over mobile phones. The communicative artifacts of these emergent organizations present an opportunity to document the allocation of decision rights, access to information, and the patterns of interaction that make them more or less effective. However, the lack of organizational structure presents an obstacle to qualitative research, as job descriptions, managers, key influencers, or decision-makers may be fluid or difficult to uncover.
One of the challenges in conducting rapid research in the post-disaster setting is balancing the timeliness of data collection, so as to not have decay of memory regarding subjective facts, with the availability of respondents. For those respondents that we have been able to interview, their memories of the events are still fresh and quite clear even six months post-event. The majority of our interviews have been with administrators at hospitals that had moderate impacts from the event. However, there are two groups whose participation has been difficult to gain: those administrators at hospitals that were severely damaged by the storm and are still out of service, and those hospitals that had little to no damage from the storm. The former are not contactable through their normal contact points (e.g., phone numbers, emails, addresses), and the latter are not interested in participating.
Rapid reconnaissance research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. It is critical that we learn from projects that have identified valuable lessons, protocols, and best practices for rigorous and ethical disaster science. Given the short time frame that researchers have to enter the field to collect perishable data, much of the project planning and team development needs to happen before a disaster strikes. The National Institute of Standards and Technology-funded Center of Excellence conducted an interdisciplinary rapid response field study in Lumberton, North Carolina, following Hurricane Matthew. The team identified challenges and opportunities in the planning and execution of this work including: team training: methods, safety, and ethics; institutional review board approval, and the Office of Management and Budget Paperwork Reduction Act; protocol adaptability; sampling; and cultural competence. Opportunities included: diverse teams; the ability to innovate research methods; interdisciplinary protocol development; sampling, data collection, and field communication technologies; strategies for daily organization and debriefing; and team composition based on skills, experience, and gender diversity.
The primary challenge associated with conducting this quick response research related to obtaining approval from the university's institutional review board. Specifically, there was a lag in obtaining approval to conduct the quick response research, resulting in a delay for the researcher to begin data collection. An additional challenge was the fact that the researcher could not discern whether not making any contact with a business was because the business had closed as a result of the hurricane or if the business was already no longer in existence before the hurricane. This challenge reveals one important opportunity to improve the collection of quick response research in the realm of business continuity and disaster recovery. Specifically, future researchers should consider identifying and making contact with a random sample of businesses before a disaster occurs. In so doing, researchers could develop strong relationships with these businesses, determine their pre-disaster preparedness levels, and be able to maintain contact with them during the response and recovery phases.
Rural areas account for the majority of land area in the United States and contribute significantly to the national economy and well-being. However, rapid reconnaissance research in rural areas poses many unique challenges and opportunities compared to more urban and suburban areas. Rural areas pose unique constraints with large inaccessible areas (e.g., due to crop fields). This requires more advanced planning to gain access and requires aerial views to identify areas of interest. The need for aerial views, rather than street-level views, presents a good opportunity to leverage unmanned aerial systems and satellite imagery, if available. Rural areas also contain different structures than more urban or suburban areas. For example, irrigation and storage systems are the most prevalent structures in many agriculturally-dominated regions compared to buildings and houses in other areas. This presents a challenge in that the responses of many of these agricultural systems to natural hazards are poorly understood.
Our team’s experience highlighted several challenges in conducting rapid reconnaissance research. We found that the sudden nature of natural hazard events brings an onslaught of competing time demands that occur almost simultaneously, including preparation of the National Science Foundation RAPID proposal, arranging for routine responsibilities to be covered or rescheduled to enable time in the field (particularly when teaching loads are heavy), and arranging travel logistics (including transportation, lodging, and permission to access affected areas). A second challenge is identifying the optimal stage to enter the field, particularly in light of balancing access and logistics with the time-critical nature of perishable damage data. A third challenge is making optimal use of time in the field. This requires prioritization for collection of available damage data. For remote-sensing condition captures, this affects the choice of platforms for data capture (e.g., balancing levels of detail with time required for data capture).
As part of future preparedness for water supply security, a plan for “mobile water supply stations” is proposed. The plan is to develop and implement a few mobile water supply stations for local residents as backup water supply sources for water outages during disasters such as Hurricane Harvey. Even when the technical aspects of the proposed mobile water supply stations are feasible, permitting procedures become the biggest hurdle, as the mobile water stations provide water to the public, and a permit is required to supply water to more than 25 people for more than two weeks. It is challenging, as there are very limited previous successful cases. Also, most permitting procedures are for permanent application, so they are usually lengthy and not adaptable for emergent application under disasters. How to develop permitting procedures that are suitable for emergent use under disasters is a challenge facing emergency responders.