Research News

Better models predict weather disaster outcomes, help plan recoveries

Hiba Baroud (Vanderbilt University)

America’s bridges are built to face weather as it happened in the past, their design and materials strength decided on historical data.

In a world where extreme weather events happen more frequently, that doesn’t work anymore. Vanderbilt’s Hiba Baroud points to South Carolina, pounded by four tropical storms plus Hurricane Matthew last year, the latter of which caused unprecedented inland flooding.

Baroud is leading a project funded by the National Science Foundation focused on using Bayesian statistical modeling to measure and analyze the risk, reliability and resilience in critical infrastructure systems; in particular, to predict outcomes in extreme weather events and models of how communities can recover the most quickly.

Bayesian modeling isn’t just based on what happened when, say, three certain hurricanes hit Florida. It includes that plus expertise from emergency officials, climate change data, information about materials used in infrastructure and potentially a hundred other data points. Instead of one 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,” said Baroud, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. “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 is part of a number of 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 resilience to 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.