Better models for weather disaster outcomes look beyond historical data

In a world with more frequent extreme weather events, basing new bridges on historical weather data and previous structure wear no longer works.

Take South Carolina, said Hiba Baroud, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. Four tropical storms plus Hurricane Matthew pounded the coastal state in 2016 alone, the latter of which caused unprecedented inland flooding.

Baroud is leading a project funded by the National Science Foundation that looks beyond historical weather patterns and infrastructure reliability to better measure and analyze risk and resilience.

The team is focused on using Bayesian statistical modeling to predict outcomes in extreme weather events and models of how communities can best recover from them.

Hiba Baroud

Bayesian modeling based on more than what happened when, for example, three certain hurricanes hit Florida. It factors in expertise from emergency officials, climate change data, information about materials used in infrastructure and potentially a hundred other data points.

Rather than a single outcome – build this bridge to withstand this level of hurricane – Bayesian modeling provides a range.

“Bayesian modeling gives you a probability distribution – a number of possible events and outcomes,” Baroud said. “It allows you to incorporate the stakeholders in the decision-making process. If someone is risk averse, they want to build the most robust bridge that will withstand any potential hazard. They will go with a parameter that is looking at more extreme cases.

“Others may be geared toward more profit, so they would be risk-taking, valuing a more cost-effective solution,” she said.

Baroud is the inaugural recipient of the Littlejohn Dean Faculty Fellowship, an endowed fellowship for junior faculty members.

Since joining the engineering faculty in 2015, she has become part of a several new programs at the Vanderbilt Center for Transportation and Operational Resiliency, including a winning proposal in the National Disaster Resilience Competition to study river supply chain dynamics in extreme weather events, with the support of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In addition, she is on teams for two Vanderbilt University 2016 research awards – the Vanderbilt Initiative on Smart Cities Operations Research and the Vanderbilt Initiative for Intelligent Resilient Infrastructure Systems.

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