Risk management strategies to help communities deal with earthquakes

Bradley Ewing, the C.T. McLaughlin Chair of Free Enterprise and professor of energy commerce in the Rawls College of Business, is part of an interdisciplinary research project with colleagues from Cornell University, the University of Delaware and the University of Washington, funded by a Critical Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Systems and Processes (CRISP) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), examining risk management strategies for interdependent critical infrastructure.

Specifically, Ewing will partner with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to examine the electrical and water supply of Los Angeles during an earthquake, examining data to determine how to best optimize their risk management strategies so residents and business experience as little disruption to services as possible. His part of the funding from the NSF is $390,830.

“What we want to do is try to figure out how a large community, subject to some risk, can not only mitigate the disruption, but also become more resilient with a plan or some type of strategy in place ahead of time,” Ewing said. “That may include different types of infrastructure changes that affect the design of the infrastructure itself, or buildings, or equipment used for water and electricity. What we are going for is keeping things as smooth as possible with as little loss of life or reduction in output of jobs or critical services.”

Earthquakes and infrastructure

Ewing has expertise in examining economic effects from hurricanes and tornadoes, but, for this project, he wanted to focus on a disaster that kind of combined the two – the sudden destruction from a tornado with the widespread area of damage from a hurricane.

That led to earthquakes, which hit with little to no warning and can cause massive damage over a large area. Ewing said there are many similarities between the types of disasters that can be examined.

“When talking about infrastructure, the buildings and built environment, what you make to withstand earthquakes and what you make to withstand hurricanes and tornadoes is different, but there is a lot of spillover knowledge that can be gained from one to another,” Ewing said. “So, part of this was to really get down to look at the specifics of the built environment and the critical infrastructure, the system functions of those elements and how the society, which includes households and businesses, work together and the strategies in place once a natural disaster hits.”

Ewing will work with the LADWP to study data gathered during past earthquakes. Los Angles sits less than forty miles from the San Andreas Fault, which forms the tectonic boundary between the Pacific and North American Plates, where some of the largest earthquakes in the history of the United States have occurred.

The data he will examine will show how the risk management strategies implemented by the LADWP work to ensure water and electricity in the Los Angeles area are maintained or restored as quickly and efficiently as possible in the event of an earthquake.

Ewing will also go outside the United States to gather data. He will examine data gathered by colleagues in New Zealand, where he says earthquakes happen at a similar rate to the U.S. with a great deal of usable data collected on how those quakes have affected buildings and other elements of infrastructure, which are engineered and constructed similarly to those elements here.

Also, a member of the research team recently traveled to Mexico shortly after the earthquake that struck there in September, gathering useful information into the risk management systems in place and the reaction of those systems. But the large focus of the project will be on Los Angeles.

“Unlike hurricanes that come in periodically and there is usually a season, there aren’t any earthquake seasons,” Ewing said. “We hope to utilize some of the data on their earthquakes and other areas of the world to help simulate a model for Los Angeles. The focus is on Los Angeles but we will try to use all the data out there we can as well as collecting our own data.”

Optimizing strategies

The overarching goal is to optimize a community’s risk management strategies to ensure the critical infrastructure, such as water and electricity experience as little disruption as possible.

That’s necessary not only for households, which need water to eat, drink and bathe, but also for businesses to operate and not be forced to shut their doors for a long period of time, thereby putting employees out of work. But it also is required for other critical services, such as ambulatory or medical facilities and first responder efforts.

That makes optimization critical to a city or community getting back on its feet as quickly as possible.

“What we’re trying to figure out is, what are those adaptive strategies communities are undertaking, and with that in mind, can you build the infrastructure in conjunction with how people actually behave to optimize your risk management?” Ewing said. “That is the overall goal there – to look at how the system can be designed better given people’s actual behaviors when there is a big disaster, and then the next wave of infrastructure that is built would take that into account.”

While the study will focus on one of the largest cities in the United States, the goal is also to design a risk management strategy applicable to any city of any size, and also designed to handle natural disasters outside of earthquakes, like hurricanes, tornadoes and fires.

That will mean examining a multitude of risk management strategies and designing dozens of models with different combinations of strategies to come up with the best one. Those strategies could involve tactics such as trucking in water to mitigate a shortage or rationing water to ensure an adequate supply. But it also will involve tackling the problem from other angles.

Examining data will help Ewing determine what jobs were around six months to a year after an earthquake and what was done to keep those jobs at the level they were before the earthquake hit. Working back from there will help Ewing identify what strategies were most effective in returning those jobs back to their pre-disaster levels and which ones did not work in order to avoid those failed strategies.

By attacking the issue from both ends, Ewing is confident he and his fellow researchers will be able to best design a risk management plan that is the most effective and is applicable to any natural disaster.

“There are different factors in terms of the local economy in the area and the types of build environments,” Ewing said. “We engineer buildings differently for where an earthquake hits than where we have a potential flood or potential hurricane and things like that. But, the same system interaction between the society functioning and the infrastructure system working would still exist.

“The ultimate idea is to make things function with as little disruption as possible, even though it would be a major disaster and there would be a lot of disruption. Can the strategy be designed so that it is as resilient as possible, and the resiliency of the community is such so that it comes back to normal as quickly as possible?”