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Disasters expose continued critical infrastructure vulnerabilities

May 22, 2017   /   by John Hollis

Elise Miller-Hooks. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Hurricane Katrina was supposed to be the catalyst for change after it exposed the vulnerabilities in America’s critical infrastructure in August 2005, but recent disasters have served notice there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Elise Miller-Hooks, the Bill and Eleanor Hazel Chair in Infrastructure Engineering at George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Engineering, is leading a team that is developing the tools needed to assess the resilience of health care systems, school districts, university campuses, government functions, residential buildings and business districts.

Comprising interdependent buildings that collectively serve their communities, these facilities form what is known as a critical infrastructure-based societal system, which relies on a network of critical services, including water, power, cyber, transportation and wastewater. Making sure these systems can withstand any disaster and recover to provide their services is essential.

“These systems are all interdependent,” said Miller-Hooks. “They’re all critical lifelines to society. Without them, our society doesn’t function. If a failure occurs in one system, its effects might cascade into another system.”

With a $2.5 million National Science Foundation grant, Miller-Hooks and her team, with members from John Hopkins, the University of Maryland and the University of Delaware, are studying the potential impact of multiple hazards on critical infrastructure-based societal systems, while accounting for the effects of public policy, organizational policy, emergent organizational behaviors and risk communication to form a broader quantitative assessment.

Her findings can help guide state and local officials in improving, building and maintaining resilient communities in the future.

Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans resulted in scores of patient deaths in city hospitals following the loss of power and failed backup generator systems. A similar disastrous scenario nearly played out in New York City during Superstorm Sandy when a deluge of water threatened the Bellevue Hospital Center.

The hospital lost power, but officials remained confident in their generators located on the building’s 13th floor. When the fuel pumps in the basement that powered the generators were compromised by more than 17 million gallons of water, however, they were forced to evacuate more than 740 patients, including babies from the neonatal intensive care unit.

Miller-Hooks, whose focus has been the resiliency of the health care system, and her team are seeking ways to predict and prevent such breakdowns in the future.

“The question we’re asking is, ‘How resilient is this community function that takes place in these buildings, given their underlying dependence on these interdependent infrastructure systems?’” she said.

Miller-Hooks said she hopes politicians charged with making the necessary decisions will take heed.

“People behave in different ways under uncertainty,” she said. “How do you make decisions under these uncertain environments? And how do you invest in these uncertain environments? And how do you understand the pay-off for investing? That’s really what my research is in a bigger sense.”

Miller-Hooks brought a very significant portion of the grant for the collaborative project with her from the University of Maryland. The grant, which concludes in August 2018, also includes education and outreach aimed at strengthening the pipelines of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.