COVID-19 Pandemic Highlights Urgent Need To Re-Examine Hazard Mitigation

NSF grant will support the development of a new research agenda in hazard mitigation

September 22, 2020


With many people stuck inside for months on end, the built environment has played a significant role in the COVID-19 pandemic. With support from a new National Science Foundation grant, a team of engineers and social scientists will study the ways in which that built environment mitigates or exacerbates the pandemic.

“There is a tendency to view COVID-19 as exclusively a public health crisis. Our work aims to articulate how we have built ourselves into this crisis and, in the long term, the prospects and pitfalls for building ourselves out of it,” said David Mendonça, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who is leading this multi-institutional research effort.

This work is especially timely given the likelihood that other hazards such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods will continue to occur during the current pandemic. This will place additional strain on existing capabilities for emergency response, and may lead to situations where the planned response to one event is in direct contradiction to the response of another event — for example, the need for social distancing for a pandemic coupled with mass sheltering during a hurricane.

“With predictions indicating that 2020 will be one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, this project will offer a timely yet somber opportunity to study the intersection of pandemics and other natural hazards,” said Tracy Kijewski-Correa, a member of the project team who is also an associate professor jointly appointed in the Keough School of Global Affairs and the College of Engineering at the University of Notre Dame.    

Worldwide, COVID-19 has revealed the degree to which some communities and groups are overexposed and under-protected to hazards, an area that will be of significant focus in this work.

“We need to accept that a significant portion of our population is confined or otherwise restricted in movement, be they in prisons, nursing homes, or schools. The rates of infection in these places, as well as in less economically advantaged communities, are staggering,” Mendonça said.

Additionally, engineers have long sought to make logistics and supply chains more efficient by eliminating waste. According to Mendonça, pandemic-related supply shortages, such as a lack of sufficient personal protection equipment, have revealed how inelastic those systems have become.

“We need to look critically and carefully at the question of whether our relentless drive for efficiency and cost-cutting has produced brittle rather than flexible systems. That means we need to develop approaches for incorporating equity, effectiveness, and other aspects of societal well-being into system design and operation,” he said.

This research effort is extremely collaborative in nature, bringing together experts in industrial engineering, civil engineering, and public policy. Researchers will collect and analyze case study data in order to develop an initial research framework, which will help inform a comprehensive agenda for researching the design and operation of the built environment in a way that supports mitigation of pandemic joint hazards. The team will work with the NSF-funded natural hazards engineering research major distributed facility known as Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI).

“NHERI researchers are exploring the resilience of the built environment in relation to earthquakes, high-wind, and other events. They are available to the engineering and science communities to confront the grand challenge presented by the threat of pandemic joint hazards around the globe," said Julio Ramirez, a professor of civil engineering at Purdue University, and the director of the NHERI Network Coordination Office Center.

Government and private sector policies are also instrumental in determining the spread or suppression of COVID-19. Therefore, understanding the interaction between public policy and the built environment in mitigating pandemic joint hazards is another vital aspect of this research.

“I value the opportunity to work with a group of scholars and researchers who are willing and able to step back, re-examine existing engineering design principles and frameworks in the context of pandemic joint hazards, and integrate perspectives from social scientists and other disciplines,” said Ann-Margaret Esnard, a professor of public management and policy and an associate dean for research and strategic initiatives at Georgia State University.

“This is an exceptionally challenging moment in the modern history of emergency management,” Mendonça said. "On the one hand, we are in the era of Uber, Lyft, and other platforms that give consumers almost unlimited choice. On the other, history suggests that effective hazard mitigation requires centralized planning and control. We need to identify and invest in research that recognizes these realities while also seeking to improve societal resilience.”

This research is being supported by NSF EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) grant # 2041666.

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