Harnessing data to inform disaster-related decisions
Photo courtesy of Shangjia Dong | Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase February 01, 2024
UD’s Shangjia Dong receives fellowship support from Gulf Research Program
Disasters — and how to plan for them and respond to them — are on Shangjia Dong’s daily agenda.
As an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Delaware and a core faculty member in UD’s Disaster Research Center (DRC), he is working to harness the power of algorithms and computational models to expand our understanding of the cascading effects of disaster, especially for vulnerable populations.
His work is already drawing significant support. He is one of six scientists who have been awarded a 2023 Early-Career Research Fellowship (ECRF) in Human Health and Community Resilience by the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
“Engaging in interdisciplinary research and collaboration was at the heart of the disaster science cluster search that brought Professor Dong to UD and DRC,” said Tricia Wachtendorf, professor of sociology and director of the DRC. “This much-deserved ECRF award is yet another of many accomplishments that point to his commitment to the kind of interdisciplinary work necessary to bolster disaster resilience across the nation.”
The two-year program is meant to advance health equity in the Gulf of Mexico region or Alaska by addressing factors that worsen the effects of disasters on communities that have been historically disadvantaged, overburdened or marginalized. Fellows receive a $76,000 financial award along with mentoring as they pursue untested research ideas, develop unique collaborations and build a network of colleagues.
It's a good fit with Dong’s expertise. As a core faculty member of DRC and a member of the Coastal Hazards, Equity, Economic Prosperity and Resilience (CHEER) Hub, led by UD Professor Rachel Davidson, his research revolves around understanding the complex dynamics between households, buildings and policies as disasters emerge. That’s a critical part of the work of the CHEER Hub, an interdisciplinary project to explore the challenges and tradeoffs of managing hurricane risk while achieving equity and economic prosperity. The National Science Foundation awarded $16.5 million to support this 11-institution effort.
For this Gulf Research Fellowship, he is collecting vast amounts of data on Harris County, Texas, which in the 2020 census had 4.7 million people, including the City of Houston.
He wants to know the critical services communities need to access and then assess what happens when disasters disrupt that access. He also wants to know how mobility hardships multiply the impact of this disruption for vulnerable communities, elevating a natural hazard to a full-blown disaster.
He is working with Jennifer Horney, professor and founding director of UD’s epidemiology program and part of the core faculty at DRC.
“It’s key that we understand the health impacts of disaster, which are hard to measure,” Horney said. “If you look into a vulnerable group of people who need consistent access to medical care, for example, they’re more vulnerable to being hospitalized or dying in the month after a disaster. We don’t really understand why.”
Dong will explore the interaction of multiple systems and infrastructures to see how they affect each other.
He will look, of course, at floodplain data and where the direct impact of flooding would be. The road in front of a house might be flooded. The house itself might be flooded.
“But one key thing is missing in that data,” he said. “Water goes around things. It creates an island effect. It isolates some neighborhoods from the community and, especially, a critical facility. In that case, the area might not be physically damaged. But the hidden risk of isolation prevents them from accessing services.
“Through my modeling and simulation, we can see when the flood happens — how do hazards and the built environment interact? How would services be disrupted?”
These are critical questions for those with chronic illness. One study, for example, showed that 5% of dialysis patients were missing appointments before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast region in 2005. After the hurricane devastated the region, 15% missed those critical appointments.
“Some can tolerate disruptions a little longer than others,” Dong said. “For some, this disrupts acute care that you rely on.”
Dong wants to develop models that capture how disasters affect a community’s infrastructure and community life and how they impact access to acute care services.
He has looked at flooding data collected during the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 and identified how flooding affected critical roads and isolated some communities in that Gulf Coast region.
“Was transportation accessible? Could people reach the hospital? Did communities lose electricity? Did they have potable water? How big of an impact was that — and how long could people tolerate it?
“With empirical analysis, you can see a huge gap between different communities. That revealed what is actually going on and I decided to dive deeper into that.”
For some families, he said, “when one disruption happens, it can cause a huge, cascading failure.”
Dong is especially interested in sociotechnical systems — how humans and infrastructure are interconnected. Working with other scientists — coastal scientists, engineers, hydrologists, for example — would make it possible to develop even more accurate simulations.
He takes an interdisciplinary approach and looks forward to building his network of collaborators, including those in the social sciences, public policy, public health and urban planning.
“I’m a modeler,” he said. “I like to consider all different factors. That’s my expertise and the area I’m passionate about. This is a great opportunity.”
Developing algorithmic and theoretical frameworks around complex factors will help decision-makers make better judgments as climate change forces adaptation, as plans are made to protect infrastructure, as emergency planners prepare and respond to disasters, and as future urban infrastructure is designed.
“People who are living in marginalized communities matter a lot,” he said. “And they have less capacity to cope with and recover from the disruption, but they are the ones most likely to be disrupted. They probably live on daily wages. They are probably renters. When dislocation happens, where do they go? How do they feed their families and keep their kids in school?”
Dong said he hopes to look into Delaware data, too, to be sure his methods are transferable to other sites.
“With an aging infrastructure, different components have certain probabilities of failure under different types of hazards,” he said. “And with climate change, it all comes together as a compound disaster. With increasing health problems and in Delaware, with an increasingly elderly population, there are more needs. If there are stronger hurricanes, more extensive flooding and infrastructure is not doing so well — these are compound hazards.”
About the researcher
Shangjia Dong is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Delaware, a core faculty member in the Disaster Research Center and a member of the Coastal Hazards, Equity, Economic prosperity and Resilience (CHEER) Hub and an Early Career Research Fellow in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Gulf Research Program. He also is affiliated with the Sociotechnical Systems Center (SCC) and Center for Cybersecurity, Assurance and Privacy (CCAP) at UD. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Oregon State University. Before joining the UD faculty in 2020, he did postdoctoral research at Texas A&M University.