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A RAPID transformation: Natural hazards research


December 13, 2021

RAPID Operations Manager Michael Grilliot prepares to launch a bathometric survey vessel in the Gulf of Mexico.

Responding to Hurricane Ida in Grand Isle, Louisiana in September, RAPID Operations Manager Michael Grilliot prepares to launch a bathometric survey vessel in the Gulf of Mexico.

Three years ago, data gathering protocols and procedures for reconnaissance missions were perhaps as unpredictable as the natural disasters themselves. Only a handful of researchers owned instrumentation, data collection was non-standardized and information gathered was often not shared beyond personal hard drives.

“Before RAPID, it was ad hoc, DIY or sometimes BYO (bring your own) equipment to a reconnaissance mission,” says CEE Professor Joe Wartman, who directs the Natural Hazards Reconnaissance Facility (known as RAPID).

The first center of its kind in the world, RAPID has transformed how data is gathered, processed and saved in the aftermath of natural disasters. A $6 million renewal grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) provides four additional years of funding — and a 30% budget increase allows the center to advance the natural hazards reconnaissance field through new initiatives.

Growing demand

a car with a camera mounted on the roof

RAPID researchers collect data throughout Grand Isle, Louisiana, using a 360-degree Street View camera system mounted on top of a vehicle.

Headquartered in UW CEE, RAPID has responded to 70 natural disasters including hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides and wildfires. Since the facility officially launched in 2018 following two years of preparations, there has been an increase in demand for reconnaissance support. This is due to a “new class” of disasters, says Wartman, which includes extreme events such as landslides triggered by warming temperatures as well as wildfires.

The reconnaissance community has also grown considerably. In 2016, there was only one organization that responded to extreme events. Today, the RAPID facility actively supports a community of seven extreme event reconnaissance organizations, as well as universities, government agencies and international organizations. The center offers both mission planning and deployment support as well as a suite of more than 100 unique state-of-the-art pieces of equipment.

“We offer not just a high-quality portfolio of some very pricey instruments, but a range of instruments that are tailored for specific disasters,” Wartman says. “Some are better for looking at structural concerns and others for coastal engineering concerns.”

New initiatives

The RAPID researchers are now focusing their efforts on enabling even more advancements in the field. To do so, they will offer additional project support both before and after teams deploy to disaster sites.

“One of the things we learned from the first grant is that we collected some fantastic data, but the challenge after collecting it is processing it into a digestible form,” Wartman says. “A big theme of the renewal is getting users past that bottleneck.”

To supplement an existing four-day hands-on intensive training workshop, the center plans to offer a variety of data processing trainings. Workshops at various universities will also help increase the participation of underrepresented populations.

Data driven

Central to its mission, the center will continue to emphasize the importance of sharing data with the broader research community. So far, more than 100 terabytes of unique natural hazards data has been archived. From using data sets to verify landslide models to perhaps even informing artificial intelligence research, the options are endless, Wartman says.

“There will be uses for the data that I can’t even imagine in this day and time,” says Wartman. “We’ve built a community of researchers with an understanding that what is collected will be openly shared, which does a lot to ensure transparency in engineering and science.”