The University of Washington will host a center to assist reconnaissance missions to natural disasters around the world. Researchers hope to glean valuable information about disaster resilience before it vanishes in the chaos.

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Emergency responders aren’t the only ones who need to act fast when disaster strikes. Researchers can glean valuable lessons about how to reduce the impact of future earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes — if they’re able to mobilize quickly and gather data before it’s lost in the chaos or cleanup.

Scientists at the University of Washington helped orchestrate the first field investigation just weeks after the deadly 2014 Oso landslide in Washington. Now, the National Science Foundation has picked the UW to host a center to assist reconnaissance missions to natural disasters around the world.

“What this facility will do is provide a global center for the investigation of disasters and their immediate aftermath,” said UW engineering professor Joe Wartman, co-leader of the Oso team and director of the new center.

Rapid response can be crucial to understanding why some buildings and utilities are damaged in earthquakes and windstorms, and others aren’t, Wartman said. Weather can quickly wash away clues. Crack patterns in walls can be obliterated by demolition.

“If you aren’t there to capture that immediately after the earthquake or other disaster, that information gets lost forever,” he said.

A new UW facility lets scientists examine disaster scenes via virtual reality. Here, researchers at Oregon State University view a home damaged in an earthquake-triggered rock avalanche in Christchurch, NZ. (Video courtesy of Oregon State University)

The $4.1 million, Post-Disaster, Rapid Response Research Facility at the UW will serve as a repository for high-tech gear like drones and lidar scanners to boost data collection in the field, and mobile devices that record interviews and videos along with geospatial data. Trained staff will be available to deploy with reconnaissance teams.

The facility will also use state-of-the-art virtual-reality tools to allow scientists to collect three-dimensional images of damaged buildings or collapsed bridges, then later “revisit” the scene in great detail while sitting in a laboratory in Seattle.

“You can quite literally walk through the buildings that have been scanned and take centimeter-level measurements,” Wartman said.

A prototype of the virtual-reality system is already being used by researchers at Oregon State University to analyze buildings damaged in recent earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand.

One of the UW center’s main goals is to test computer models used to predict the way buildings, bridges, levees and other infrastructure will behave in violent storms or earthquakes, Wartman said. “We have sophisticated, mathematical models of what will happen, but we haven’t done so well in being able to measure what actually happens in the field, because these are rare events.”

For example, models have been used to predict how many landslides a powerful earthquake might trigger in Seattle, but there’s not a lot of field data to show how accurate those models really are.

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NSF-funded disaster reconnaissance teams from across the country will be able to draw on the UW center’s tools, expertise and personnel. All data will be freely shared.

Called RAPID for short, the UW facility will focus on earthquakes, tsunamis and quake-triggered landslides, as well as windstorms ranging from twisters to typhoons. It’s part of a broader, $40 million NSF initiative to explore ways to protect infrastructure, homes and businesses from disaster.

The Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure initiative supports major facilities — like a wind tunnel able to simulate a Category 5 hurricane and a shake table big enough to test the earthquake-readiness of a six-story building — at universities around the country.

“We’re trying to do the fundamental research that will allow changes in our building codes and, perhaps, changes in things like land-use policy that will make our civil infrastructure more resilient to natural disasters,” said Richard Fragaszy, NSF program director for resilient and sustainable infrastructure.

In addition to physical data, the UW center will focus on the socioeconomic aspects of disasters and how to plan and design for more resilient communities, said UW environmental policy professor Ann Bostrom, one of several faculty members involved in the project.

Bostrom is particularly interested in risk perception and how people respond to warnings, like evacuation notices in advance of hurricanes.

“The better we can understand human behavior and decision-making, the better we can design policies and infrastructure … to promote behaviors that will help keep people safe,” she said.

The center will also include a citizen science component that will allow local residents to quickly report damage across their communities.