bulldozers cleared away debris in New Orleans earlier this month, a
team of researchers from CITRIS’s Katrina Recovery Task Force (KRTF)
was racing ahead of construction crews, gathering vital data on what
went wrong before it disappeared for good.
“It was a rush.
We would come to a site and would figure out what had happened. Two
hours later, bulldozers had covered the critical information. In some
cases, if we hadn’t gotten there first, those sites would have been
mysterious perhaps forever. So it was a very urgent task,” recalls UC
Berkeley civil and environmental engineering professor Raymond Seed of
This urgent fact-finding mission is just one of
several efforts that’s already been launched by the newly formed task
force. CITRIS has brought together academics whose expertise ranges
from organizational behavior to offshore oil infrastructure and
vulnerabilities in levees. Their goals range from studying what went
wrong in New Orleans to providing immediate and long-term assistance as
the storm-afflicted Gulf Coast region plans and builds its new
infrastructure. As was the case during the hurricane itself, speed has
proven critical to making a difference.
Realizing it was
important to act fast, CITRIS Director Shankar Sastry called for an
emergency town hall meeting on Sept. 8. With the chaotic aftermath of
Katrina still playing out live on television, professors from UC
Berkeley and UC Merced shared their expertise over a live video link
and began forming a plan for immediate action. In early October, two
fact-finding teams were deployed to New Orleans for a week at a time
with seed funding from CITRIS and the National Science Foundation.
There they gathered data alongside the Army Corps of Engineers and
other researchers—and often just in the nick of time–offered advice on
immediate problems and planned for ongoing collaboration.
Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor and task force member
Robert Bea, who along with Professor John Radke is leading the task
force’s study of the offshore and coastal infrastructure, the visit was
personal as well as professional. Bea, who’s worked for the Army Corps
of Engineers, Shell, and Bechtel on pipeline infrastructure, lost his
home in 1965’s to Hurricane Betsy. He describes his visit to New
Orleans with one of the KRTF teams as “déjà vu.”
a repeat of recent events, experts need a centralized place where they
can disseminate and share information. To that end, Professor and task
force member John Radke is building a digital library. Radke says the
library will be designed “so that everyone gathering data in the field
could contribute it.” He also plans to build a spatially encoded “map”
of the area, that brings together data from the U. S. Geological
Service, the Multiple Listings Service, and other databases. A similar
tool built by Radke for the 1991 East Bay Hills firestorm has been used
to identify ways to prevent future fires and assess property values and
risks. That disaster killed 25 people and resulted in $1.5 billion in
Of course, there are many aspects of this recent
disaster that don’t neatly fit into a database. As Haas Business School
Professor Karlene Roberts pointed out during the Town Hall meeting:
“This began as a weather problem. It quickly moved to an engineering
problem and then a set of organizational problems.” An expert in
organizational behavior, Roberts is leading the KRTF study of the human
social dynamics such as health care, law enforcement, and evacuation
that played a critical role in the Katrina disaster.
reform is another major goal of this task force. Seed, for one, is
hoping that the current attention on levees will cause politicians to
rethink how that critical infrastructure is managed in this country.
For example, a levee failure along California’s Sacramento and Delta
levees could result in a mass water shortage in Southern California and
catastrophic damage to the state’s capital. Yet Seed says these and
many others across the country are not adequately maintained.
a very dicey patchwork and we have tenuous situations in most of the
fifty states. I’m going to Washington and a lot of people there are
seeking to know more about this, because in the end how we construct
and design levees and who has oversight over that is a policy issue for
the nation,” Seed says.
While the task force’s immediate
aim is to provide whatever help they can in building a stronger, better
equipped Gulf Coast, it is preventing and reducing the damage from
potential disasters, like a major levee failure in California, that
will sustain their efforts over the long run.
a national center for catastrophic risk reduction. The lessons we are
learning here have implications not only for Southern Louisiana but
also California and the rest of the world,” says Bea.
For more information:
For more information on CITRIS’s Katrina Recovery Task Force projects and team members, please visit the Katrina Recovery Task Force web site.