A Texas A&M University research project on the relationships between planning, procedures and people, and how they influence the resiliency of infrastructure systems in the face of flooding, has been awarded a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Led by Ali Mostafavi, a Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station researcher and assistant professor with the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, a multidisciplinary team from A&M will aim to understand how both human and physical networks affect the vulnerability of urban areas to flooding. The grant was awarded through the National Science Foundation's Critical Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Systems and Processes program.

The project will build on Mostafavi's infrastructure resiliency research he conducted in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The interactions between different organizations, plans and policies and how the failure or disruption of one network can affect another is a complex problem that Mostafavi said needs to be studied holistically to find a solution that is systemic.

"What we are hypothesizing is, if these networks of actors are fragmented, this will lead to a set of plans and policies that are conflicting," Mostafavi said. "The conflicting plans and policies lead to the development of infrastructure investments that do not effectively reduce vulnerability." 

The development of State Highway 99 west of Houston is an example of this, Mostafavi said. The highway was built to reduce traffic congestion, but planning for the project may not have considered how the development of the surrounding area would reduce green space and ultimately affect how water would drain during flooding.

The interdependencies between systems -- such as how the design of a street affects its drainage capacity, which if exceeded leads to flooding and can slow emergency response -- will be studied to develop actionable science that can help inform future public policy decisions.

One major lesson from Hurricane Harvey, Mostafavi said, is that failing to invest in identifying vulnerabilities in infrastructure systems can lead to "delayed mitigation that will affect communities." Additionally, he said, planners and stakeholders are in need of a collective recognition of the significance of the problem of severe weather events. After a recent survey of Harris County stakeholders, Mostafavi said he was surprised to learn that while some believed that Harvey will  be "a new norm" in severe weather, as many believed it was a "one-in-1,000-year" storm.

Another problem is that planning for infrastructure resiliency is a "huge" investment, Mostafavi said, the benefits of which are not immediately actualized. But he says the best approach, based on research, is one of "no regrets."

"What can we do so that when the next big event happens in the area, that we will not have any regrets of why we didn't retrofit the flood control system, or we didn't raise the elevation of roads or bridges, or other mitigation actions that could be made?" Mostafavi said.

Harris County will be the test bed of the project, with an advisory stakeholder team including the Harris County Flood Control District, the city of Houston, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas Department of Transportation.

Researchers on the project include Philip Berke, professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning and director of the Texas A&M Institute for Sustainable Communities; Sierra Woodruff, assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning; Arnold Vedlitz, professor and Bob Bullock Chair in Government and Public Policy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service; and Bjorn Birgisson, professor in the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering.

"This is a very exciting project for us, and this shows the significance of the work that we do in the civil engineering department at Texas A&M," Mostafavi said. "This award enables us to expand our impact, not only in the scientific domain, but also in working with our stakeholder partners in the region so we can make an impact on the way future infrastructure is designed and operated so we can protect the community."

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