For example, some people might lack the funds to secure their windows
and doors. Or, perhaps they perceive this intervention as unnecessary
because they only plan to live in the house for a few years and assume
they won’t encounter a disaster in that short time. However, a hurricane
might strike later, when the house has a new owner.
“Sometimes the people who made the choice won’t have to ultimately
face the consequences of their decision, and by the time people face the
consequences, they forget that somebody made a choice that led to
that,” said Trainor. As the team develops a better understanding of how
these decisions are made, they will factor them into their models.
Putting insight into practice
The models developed by the team could someday be used as a policy
analysis tool to design and evaluate interventions for disaster
“We’re developing a mathematical tool to try to understand what
policies would be most effective, and importantly, for each policy, what
would the consequences be to each stakeholder, insurers, homeowners,
and the government,” said Davidson. “That’s one important aspect of our
approach that sets it apart from others. We’re explicitly representing
all the different players. None of those stakeholders can solve the
problem by themselves.”
The tool could help to answer complex questions, such as whether
government agencies should offer grants to homeowners to encourage them
to strengthen their homes.
“Right now, it’s not obvious if that’s a good use of funds or not,”
said Davidson. “Is it better to wait and help them recover afterward? Or
if a grant is offered, how much should it be for? Is it enough to
influence homeowner behavior? Or is it better to focus on buyout
programs where the government will buy and demolish a home that
continuously floods over and over again.”
The model could also address questions about the role of the insurance industry in disaster relief.
The team hopes that this work could help to save lives someday.
“We’re not there yet, but we do envision a platform where someone in
an office in an agency could log in to their computer, enter some
characteristics of their community or pull in data about the place that
they’re working, and click some buttons and say: What if I did this?
What if I did that?” said Trainor. “The idea is that at some point in
the future, this system would give them a set of answers that would help
them think through difficult choices they’re making in their
communities about how to reduce risk.”
An interdisciplinary framework
This project, which is supported by NSF grant 1830511 through the
Leading Engineering for America’s Prosperity, Health, and Infrastructure
(LEAP-HI) program, has been a long time in the making. Davidson and
Nozick have been studying hurricane risk management for more than a
decade. They found that engineering techniques alone could not solve the
problems they were facing, so several years ago, Trainor and Kruse
joined the effort.
“We realized that the human behavior was very important in
understanding how people, in this case homeowners, make decisions in
managing risk,” said Davidson. “We realized that we needed more
The University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, which has more
than 50 years of history, connects faculty and students from different
disciplines to address these questions in a holistic manner.
“When you work on complicated problems like this, you can only do it
for so long before you realize there is no way to effectively bring
science to public benefit without taking on complicated dimensions of
the issues,” said Trainor. “You can’t make the world a better place with
science if you’re not connected enough to different people.”
The Disaster Research Center recently announced a cluster hire, inviting applications from talented scholars pursuing interesting questions related to disasters, hazards, and crisis.
“We’re excited to bring in more views, more perspectives, more people
who are poised to do cutting-edge research projects that deal with
important, complicated problems like this one does,” said Trainor.
UD offers half a dozen programs for students to learn about disasters
from a variety of perspectives, from engineering to public policy.
“There is no place that has the diversity of disaster-focused degrees
that we have here at the University of Delaware,” said Trainor.
Article by Julie Stewart; photos by iStock