Enough, Already

E-mail Melanie Martella

You know, I'm really beginning to think that 2011 is just a pig of a year. And I'm not talking about the country's ongoing economic woes, I'm really just talking about a lot of extreme weather happening, all over the country, pretty much all year. May had massive tornadoes wreaking havoc across the Midwest, the Southwest is way drought-ridden (and bits of Texas are currently on fire and if I knew a way to port New England's current excess of water their way, I'd do it in a heartbeat), and New England got walloped by Hurricane Irene. If there's a positive spin to put on this, it's that clever, motivated people are using these disasters to collect data to help us better weather such events.

In any battle of us vs. Mother Nature, Mother Nature is pretty much always going to win. That's not to say that we can't use the experience to figure out how to build structures that are more capable of surviving wildfires, hurricanes, or floods and to create better risk assessment tools. For instance, folks from the Rochester Institute of Technology and Kucera International Inc. mapped the flooding in eastern New York using high-resolution color and short-wave IR cameras as well as LIDAR. The images give the disaster response and recovery organizations fast, accurate information on what got destroyed and where, and the flood mapping can enable better watershed modeling.

In August NIST launched their Disaster and Failure Events Data Repository, a collection of data on how structures fail when they undergo disasters both natural and manmade. Because NIST is heavily involved in developing improved building codes and fire safety standards, and because it has so much information at its fingertips, it wants to make the data more easily accessible as well as spark innovation in how to more efficiently collect such data and the generation of relevant standards. It seems somehow fitting that the first phase of this project includes the information, simulations, and reports stemming from the 9/11 World Trade Center buildings collapse, the tenth anniversary of which occurs this weekend. Phase two will include data on a wider selection of Dangerous Things, including fires, tsunamis, flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes.

The good thing about human adaptability is that we can learn from our mistakes and adjust our thinking and planning based on new information. Sadly, 2011 is providing us with a wealth of food for thought.

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