With April marking the one-year anniversary of the fatal fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center (HRRC) at Texas A&M University is still helping in recovery efforts, and even calling for volunteers to lend a hand. It’s what the center has been doing for a quarter century — helping communities not only recover from disaster, but better plan to avoid such devastation in the future.
Part of Texas A&M’s College of Architecture, HRRC is marking a much more joyous anniversary this year as the center celebrates its 25th year. The scope of HRRC’s research encompasses disasters of all kinds, including climate change, drought and their impact on future water resources.
HRRC researchers have worked to shift the focus of disaster planning away from its traditional realm in emergency management, in favor of helping communities and their leaders plan smarter — to avoid, absorb and otherwise recover from all kinds of disasters.
“In the past, nobody was thinking about how to reduce the risk of a natural disaster,” says Walter Gillis Peacock, director of the HRRC, the only research center in the United States dedicated to researching vulnerability reduction and long-term recovery.
“Our research shows we need to change how we are impacting our surroundings and start focusing on where we are building, how we are building, and how our activity modifies the natural environment,” says Peacock. “We need to reconsider what ‘normal’ development should be, and quit setting ourselves up by placing ourselves more at risk, more likely to experience a major natural disaster.”
HRRC researchers hope to aid policymakers in understanding the consequences of land development in at-risk areas, and have integrated their findings into the Texas Coastal Communities Planning Atlas, a web-based geographic information system.
The interactive atlas, designed for non-expert users, created by Peacock, HRRC Fellow and Professor of Urban Planning Samuel Brody, and Faculty Fellows Forster Ndubisi and Doug Wunneburger, includes data on hazard vulnerability, impact and recovery over several years and can isolate data for a particular community, neighborhood, or even a home.
By spotlighting socially vulnerable areas, the atlas can help emergency management planners focus mitigation resources where they are needed, reducing losses and strengthening community resilience.
“Lower-income populations often live in low-lying areas and in lower-quality homes which exposes them to greater risk during a disaster,” says Shannon van Zandt, HRRC fellow and director of the Texas A&M Master of Urban Planning program. “Vulnerable populations are less likely to have access to information and resources enabling them to anticipate and respond to threats, yet they are more often than not the groups who most need to heed warnings to evacuate or seek shelter.”
Responding to the need to coordinate disaster resilience, vulnerability and risk reduction research on a national scale, Peacock has spearheaded “Creating a More Resilient America,” a national initiative aimed at marshaling resources and collecting data relevant to major urban and rural areas subject to natural hazards.
“This is what Texas A&M’s College of Architecture has always focused on,” says Peacock, “linking our understandings of the physical, built and social environments to help ensure a sustainable and resilient future.”
Those wishing to assist the HRRC in its recovery efforts in West should contact Michelle Meyer at (979) 862-1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.