Feature Story | 2-Jul-2024

Lehigh's first university research center to focus on catastrophe modeling

The first of three new University Research Centers, The Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience aims to explore how hurricanes, pandemics and other large-scale events impact communities

Lehigh University

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused catastrophic flooding in Louisiana, killing more than 1,800 people and leading to $108 billion in property damage, including the destruction of fiber optic cables and microwave antennas essential for transmitting and receiving signals for cellular, radio and television broadcasts.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast, killing more than 70 people and damaging more than 850 power transmission structures and more than 745 miles of transmission and distribution conductors. More than 200,000 people, including many in the Houston area, were without power for days.

In 2018, a massive wildfire in Northern California, ignited by a fault in a power line and fueled by strong winds, burned through more than 153,000 acres, destroyed 18,804 buildings and killed 85 people. The Camp Fire was California’s deadliest wildfire to date.

What these disasters have in common is that they force a closer examination of the resilience of the country’s infrastructure and utility systems. As such disasters become more frequent, they raise questions about what can be done to ensure communities can withstand catastrophes and quickly rebuild.

Catastrophe modeling and resilience, the focus of Lehigh’s first University Research Center—announced earlier this year as part of Lehigh’s strategic plan, Inspiring the Future Makers—attempts to assess the risk of these kinds of events and plan for them.

The Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience, led by Paolo Bocchini, professor of civil and environmental engineering, brings together a team of faculty from across disciplines, leveraging a wealth of experience and expertise in their respective fields who attempt to predict catastrophes and assess their associated risks.

Lehigh has had teams of researchers studying disaster resilience for years. Over time, they have developed relationships with collaborators in government, industry and academia and secured funding for a variety of projects.

“We at Lehigh created an area of strength in community and infrastructure resilience,” Bocchini said. “We started about 15 years ago to work on this. We have reached critical mass, and I think we’ve established ourselves as relevant players in the field.”

Lehigh’s leaders hope the University Research Center designation and investment will help Bocchini and his team secure more research funding to expand efforts and crystallize Lehigh’s status as a leader in the field of catastrophe modeling and resilience.

“The goal of these centers is to achieve national and international prominence in a specific area of work so that when people who are interested in a particular topic ask, ‘Where is the best or most interesting research being done on the issue,’ Lehigh comes to mind as a great place where that work is being done,” said Dominic Packer, associate vice provost for research.

The Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience will also help advance Lehigh’s goal of doubling its research over the next 10 years.

Being named a University Research Center means that the Lehigh faculty involved will invest at least 50% of their research efforts there, Packer said. For some faculty, all of their research could revolve around the center. The backing also will make Lehigh’s researchers more competitive with other institutions vying for large-scale funding. Such grants often require interdisciplinarity with a strong sense of institutional commitment, Packer said.

Several projects have already been carried out or are underway.

Research led by Bocchini explores wildfire risk assessment. Under strong wind and dry weather, California power companies can enact public safety power shutoffs, but the shutoffs cause blackouts affecting millions of people. Bocchini’s team has explored ignition probability, which is increased when conductor cables oscillate in such a way that they encroach on surrounding vegetation. Bocchini’s research provided a methodology for predicting at what point during a high wind storm powerline ignition becomes likely.

Ethan Yang, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is collaborating with Florida Atlantic University, and the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University, both in Japan, to develop an inclusive human-centered methodology comparing similarities and differences in how the United States and Japan deal with disasters and mitigate them. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project will mainly look at flooding, which often causes the most extensive damage to communities, Yang said.

David Casagrande, an anthropology professor, is studying U.S. Census data from 2000 and 2010 to examine how neighborhoods in New Orleans changed as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The data helps illustrate “social vulnerability,” that is, which members of a population may be more vulnerable and have less resilience to recover after a disaster, he said. That could be influenced by factors such as race, age, income and whether the person is a homeowner or renter.

“You can’t just treat the population as homogenous if you really want to understand,” said Casagrande, who is assisted by a graduate researcher. “You have pockets of poverty, and other issues that are going to affect a community’s ability to recover after a disaster.”

The catastrophe modeling team was a clear frontrunner among proposals for the designation as a University Research Center because, in addition to their exciting work, they were among the most established teams to submit a proposal, Packer said.

“Paolo is very impressive as a leader and he has a vision, and he and his team have been working toward this for quite a few years now,” he said. “This is not something that happened overnight. They’ve really been working toward creating a center-like structure.”

What is Catastrophe Modeling?

Catastrophe Modeling, or CatModeling, attempts to predict the likelihood of potentially catastrophic events, such as natural disasters, pandemics, financial crises, as well as political unrest and the associated risks that include financial losses, damage to buildings and other infrastructure.

CatModeling is particularly important for insurance companies who often cover the cost of disasters. The speed with which insurers can make payments can impact the long-term recovery of a region. Despite the importance of CatModeling, the field has not previously been treated as a traditional discipline explored systematically in academia.

While the private sector has moved forward research in CatModeling, it can benefit from stronger collaborations with the fundamental and interdisciplinary research done in academia, Bocchini says. The Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience envisions a thriving University Research Center that expands the role of academia in CatModeling and interacts with major stakeholders in industry, government and researchers at other universities to address the most relevant problems in the field.

Some of these problems are related to the influence of climate change on catmodels, rapid response and recovery after disasters, as well as climate, environmental and social justice applied to disaster resilience.

Resilience refers to a community’s ability to withstand and recover from a disaster. The role insurance companies play in resilience is critical, Bocchini said.

“Insurance companies are really fueling the recovery effort,” he said. “Making sure that they are still in the black after these events, and they can provide resources, is important. In the past, we had examples where some insurance companies went bankrupt before catastrophe modeling became a science.”

Center researchers have decided to continue their efforts from a public sector perspective, but also add new focus on the private sector, specifically the insurance industry, he said.

Bocchini’s background is in probabilistic modeling applied to civil engineering. Since his early research years, Bocchini has applied probabilistic modeling to natural disasters.

“I saw students get immediately excited when I pitched this type of application, because we are dealing with the biggest threats to our society,” Bocchini said. He and his colleagues realized such models could be applied to other events as well. They began trying to predict epidemics before the COVID pandemic hit.

“These are measures of threats our society faces, and in some cases they are existential threats,” Bocchini said. “Trying to do something about it, for me as an engineer, is very fascinating. I’m not trying to cure diseases, but I think this is the best approximation of trying to help our society defend against its threats.”

An Interdisciplinary Team

The catastrophe modeling group at Lehigh have also catalyzed a broader catastrophe modeling coordination network, for which Lehigh’s University Research Center will serve as hub. It includes founding members from Rice University in Houston, Stanford University in Palo Alto and Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. There are additional members from Washington State, Missouri University of Science and Technology and Columbia University in New York.

Lehigh currently has eight core faculty members involved in the center from across various disciplines, including engineering, mathematics, science and social sciences. They include Bocchini, Casagrande and Yang, as well as:

Daniel Conus, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Mathematics
Brian Davison, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering
Benjamin Felzer, associate professor of Earth and environmental sciences
Thomas McAndrew, assistant professor with the College of Health
Maryam Rahnemoonfar, an associate professor with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Bocchini hopes to at least double the number of center-affiliated researchers in the next few years. The center is also in the process of hiring an industry liaison to work with those in the insurance sector. A master’s degree program in catastrophe modeling and resilience has been introduced along with a certificate program. The first students in those programs are starting in the Fall 2024 semester.

“This problem requires multiple kinds of expertise to answer it well,” said Davison, who is also one of the founding members of the center.

“The insurance industry and finance industry have their areas of expertise, but they might not know how to plan for and repair certain kinds of infrastructure,” Davison said. “I would argue it’s necessary for catastrophe modeling to be interdisciplinary because we’re going to miss something pretty significant if we are not considering the human aspects.”

Davison and his colleagues at the center say they are in a unique position to bring government and private industry together.

Yang said government agencies have their attention divided by issues such as inflation and housing prices, while the insurance companies are for-profit corporations and need to worry about their finances and their competitive edge. Those in academia don’t have such constraints.“We are in a good spot and can serve as a neutral venue that brings everyone together,” he said.

Lehigh Launches its University Research Centers

The development of University Research Centers marks an important milestone in Lehigh’s strategic plan to invest in interdisciplinary research. University leaders have been seeking and developing ideas for the formation of research centers. The goal is to create multiple centers of national and international prominence in the next five to 10 years.

The process began with the strategic planning effort during fall 2022 when the “Research for Impact” working group solicited creative ideas from across campus, which helped inform and create the notion of interdisciplinary research centers in three areas: assessing and improving health by working outside of healthcare settings; interdisciplinary research and creative work to understand conflict and change; innovation for sustainable and resilient infrastructure and communities.

In August 2023, university leaders solicited proposals for University Research Centers. They received 17 letters of intent and 12 white papers, each of which presented ideas with potential for further development.

Each proposal was reviewed by experts, including Lehigh faculty, staff, deans, content experts from academia and industry, and experts in federal research priorities. Lehigh hopes to designate more University Research Centers in the near future, including in the areas of assessing and improving health by working outside of healthcare settings, and interdisciplinary research and creative work to understand conflict and change.

“We identified a set of themes, areas where it seems like we have existing strengths and it would be good to grow,” Packer said.

A location for the Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience is still being determined, though Packer believes it will most likely be on the Mountaintop Campus.

“I think our perspective is that this is a really important and exciting area of research that is only going to grow in importance,” Packer said.

The Center previously received an NSF Planning Grant to lead the planning phase of an “Industry-University Cooperative Research Center,” bringing together industry innovators, world-class academic teams and government agencies to make advances in the study of disasters and their consequences.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.