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January, 2006 Vol. 31 No. 1
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International Aid

Helping Timor-Leste May 2005

Back to Iraq May 2004

Environmental Safety

Keeping bridges safe Sept 2005

Analyzing China rainfall Sept 2005

Water in peril May 2005

Mapping for coastal management Jan 2005

Grant aids chemical identification Jan 2005

Resistant staph found at beaches Sept 2004

Corrosion research May 2004

Alternative water treatment May 2004

Asia-Pacific health threat Nov 2003

Published January 2006

Disaster Masters

UH experts lend a helping hand post tsunami and hurricane

by Janine Tully (BA ’87 Mānoa)
Ronald Riggs in front of damaged hotel building
Ronald Riggs discovered a gauge to the height of Katrina’s storm surge in Biloxi, Miss., where two floors of the Windjammer Condominiums were blown out and the third sustained major water damage

As 2005 came to a close, survivors were still reeling from the devastating tsunami that swallowed entire villages rimming the Indian Ocean and killed more than 200,000 people a year before. In the United States, officials and displaced residents were still struggling with the aftermath of massive hurricanes that ripped through North America’s Gulf Coast in August.

The initial crises over, governments and relief agencies shifted attention from immediate needs to restoration of communities and livelihoods and preventing future tragedies. Among the professionals from around the world joining in the task are more than 25 University of Hawaiʻi faculty members from various disciplines.

Responding in Sri Lanka

UH Mānoa Director of Research Relations Harold McArthur issued a call to the faculty after the 2004 tsunami. "They came to the meetings and shared what their interests were in relation to the disaster recovery," he says. The expertise ranged from post-event counseling and resort operator training to salt-tolerant crops and efficient organizational response.

An anthropologist with expertise in community planning, McArthur organized an interdisciplinary recovery team to address technical and human needs. Among the responders was Walter Patrick, a professor with UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine.

Patrick was visiting family in Florida when he saw video footage of the tsunami sweeping his island home on Dec. 26, 2004. Like many of his countrymen, he lost family members in the tsunami—a painful reminder of another tragedy, when a deadly hurricane killed thousands on the island nearly 30 years before. Both struck during the monsoon season when fishermen flock to the shore. "If you are a good fishermen you know that on a cloudy, rainy day you will probably catch more fish," Patrick explains.

As head of international health and medicine at UH Mānoa and secretary general for the Asia Pacific Academic Consortium of Public Health, Patrick’s interest was more than personal. A veteran of international relief efforts, he contacted the consortium to see how the University of Hawaiʻi could help. His goal was threefold: make use of UH’s expertise, raise public awareness about the disaster and conduct research on the trauma caused by the tsunami, particularly in women and children.

Patrick was inspired to study women’s psychological reactions after social worker Jennifer Baggerly, who worked with tsunami orphans, turned a shredded sari found on a beach into a symbol of tragedy. Stories about women drowning because of the weight of their saris began circulating in Sri Lanka. It’s unlikely that women would have shed their saris, a symbol of virtue and modesty, to save themselves, Patrick explains. "When I walked the same shore where Jennifer picked up the shredded sari, I thought of the thousands of yards of cloth that wrapped the women as they drowned, perhaps choosing to keep their last bit of dignity."

Patrick plans to expand on a study he published in 1983 on post-traumatic stress syndrome following the 1978 hurricane. The study revealed that women initially handled crises well, but later manifested psychological disorders that lasted longer than those in men. A new study may show different results due to the 20-year civil war, he speculates. "The civil war has caused an emotional toll because these are people harming others. A tsunami can be rationalized as an act of God."


Ian Robertson examined the US 90 bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs, Miss., which was apparently lifted by rising water and driven off its supports by Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge

Funding is key

Politics, civil war and bureaucracy have slowed funding of projects in Sri Lanka and other countries, but Kusuma Cooray, honorary Sri Lankan consul and a Kapiʻolani Community College professor, remains optimistic. "Long-term projects take a long time to fund," she says.

Cooray was instrumental in getting UH to work with Sri Lankan officials in developing a recovery plan. Hawaiʻi is at the forefront of disaster recovery, and its location and cultural similarities with other island nations make it an ideal model to follow, she says.

After a fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka in summer 2005, the inter-disciplinary UH team developed a recovery proposal in collaboration with the Sri Lankan National Management Centre and other institutions. The project focuses on education and training in emergency preparedness, coastal management, public health and tourism. It also calls for developing school curricula that takes the myth out of natural disasters.

"If you ask young people about the tsunami, they think they were being punished," says School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology’s Barbara Keating, a Mānoa geophysicist on the team. "It’s a sad state when you don’t understand that disasters are natural occurrences."

The recovery plan is one of seven proposals submitted by UH departments for review by Sri Lankan officials and funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Decisions.

Pre-planning for safety

Kem Lowry, former chair of UH Mānoa’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning, has worked on coastal management in Sri Lanka since the early 1980s. He recommends reducing construction in hazard zones, but recognizes that, because of land shortages, some people will continue to risk living in these areas.

Use of building strategies such as those applied in flood prone areas of Hawaiʻi—placing houses on re-enforced pylons with the ground floor open so that floodwaters can go through—can reduce risk to property.

As more people choose to live by the ocean, even in hazardous zones, and resorts continue to sprout along shorelines, they will be more vulnerable to natural disasters. Still, the risk of living in such areas can be diminished by planning against erosion, flooding, tsunamis and hurricanes, says Dennis J. Hwang, a Honolulu attorney specializing in coastal management, environmental land use and property law.

A UH graduate with a degree in geophysics, Hwang wrote the Hawaiʻi Coastal Hazard Mitigation Guidebook. Among his recommendations: reduce population density in coastal areas, flood proof your home, build for high-velocity storm surges and follow standard building codes.

Both the Indonesian government and Louisiana state officials have asked Hwang to write hazard mitigation guidebooks tailored to their regions.

Kevin Hopkins in front of Thai fishing boats
Kevin Hopkins is helping Thai communities rebuild sustainable fishing so they don’t have to rely on hand-outs

Education and early warnings

The National Science Foundation awarded $500,000 to a group headed by Mānoa Department of Geology and Geophysics’ Bruce Houghton for a three-year project to develop a tsunami preparedness model that will improve tsunami alerts. The research team, which includes members from Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, will identify the most effective way to disseminate educational material about official and natural signs of tsunamis. (Official signs are things like sirens; natural signs refer to earthquakes and receding waves.)

"The Hawaiʻi warning system is among the best and is in the process of being updated," says Houghton, the Macdonald Professor of Volcanology. "We are not focusing on the warning messages but on how the public is going to react to them."

The United States plans to expand the tsunami detection and warning system because of the potential for tsunamis to strike most of the U.S. coastline. Without an effective warning system, the high death toll experienced in Southeast Asia could occur in coastal communities in the U.S., says Houghton.

"There was no system in place within most of the affected countries for the Dec. 26, 2004 event," he says. "That’s why the death toll was so high."

The University of Hawaiʻi Sea Level Center will install and upgrade 22 tide gauges in the Indian Ocean for tsunami warning next year. Meanwhile, Mānoa’s Department of Anthropology will manage a $4.1 million grant from the federal Health Resources Services Administration’s Bioterrorism Training and Curriculum Development Program to create Pacific EMPRINTS (Pacific Emergency Management, Preparedness and Response Information Network and Training Services).

"The goal is to train health professionals in Hawaiʻi, California and the U.S. affiliated Pacific Islands to better recognize and respond to bio-terrorism and public health emergencies and more effectively communicate with the public," says principal investigator Ann Sakaguchi. The 10 partners include Kapiʻolani Community College’s Department of Emergency Medical Services and UH Mānoa’s School of Nursing and College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Learning about levees

Faculty members from UH Mānoa’s College of Engineering have been studying buildings and levees damaged in floods caused by Hurricane Katrina last August.

Ian Robertson and Ronald Riggs, researchers with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, are heading a multi-university, four-year research project funded with $1.3 million from the National Science Foundation. The pair spent several months in Mississippi documenting effects of the hurricane storm surge on commercial buildings along the coastline’s industrial zone.

"If lessons had been learned from previous hurricanes, some of the damage, particularly on the bridges, could have been avoided," Riggs says. "The bridges weren’t designed or retrofitted to handle the uplift of the kind of storm we saw in Katrina. The bridges were low and the storm surge was 20 to 25 feet deep, submerging the bridges underwater. We saw brides just floating away."

The group hadn’t anticipated large shipping containers and casinos being swept into residential areas and getting stuck in buildings. "All of a sudden you had all that water congregating in one area with nowhere to flow," Riggs says.

Department colleague Peter Nicholson was tabbed by the American Society of Civil Engineers to head an assessment team to analyze and make recommendations on the New Orleans levee system. Also involved in the study were the Army Corps of Engineers, an NSF-sponsored group and other ASCE institutes.

The team studied a large number of levees and numerous breaches. "There were miles of levees that had been obliterated, not just three as initially reported by the media," says Nicholson. "Whole neighborhoods were wiped out."

Initial data has helped researchers better understand why some levees collapsed, and a preliminary report was presented to Congress in November 2005. Among the findings: mismatched floodwalls built with different materials and heights; weak links between levees; soil erosion beneath the walls.

"There was no evidence that the breaks were caused by overtopping, Nicholson says. "The high-water mark on two of the levees was two feet below the top of the floodwall when the walls blew out."

A university’s role

Scientists at the University of Hawaiʻi and three sister institutions have also studied pollution factors and tested for bacteria levels in Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain. They identified E. coli, associated with feces, as the main bacteria in the floodwaters. They are now studying the pathogens’ genetic makeup and changes in their DNA that could render them more harmful, says oceanographer Grieg Steward.

Another concern for scientists is the growth of algae in the lake, caused by nutrients in the floodwaters. The good news is that the lake wasn’t as polluted as expected, says Steward. "The prognosis for recovery is favorable."

Universities are not expected to serve as relief agencies. They generally lack the budget and staff to coordinate immediate response, McArthur says. "My feeling, and that of the group of seven that went to Sri Lanka, is that the recovery process gives us an opportunity to share our science-based expertise in a way that makes an impact, from the very technical to the very human aspects," he says.

An example is UH Hilo’s work to reestablish sustainable fishing in five Thailand communities. Its Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center is partnering with the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center and the Asian Institute of Technology on the tsunami rehabilitation project.

"The Thai have done an amazing job of clean-up. We are now trying to rebuild livelihoods so that people don’t have to rely on hand-outs," says Interim Director Kevin Hopkins.

Meanwhile, Tsunami author Walter Dudley focuses on education and training, so that people know what to do when a tsunami warning comes and where the evacuation routes are.

Even past work has proven beneficial. The abstract of Hilo Associate Professor of Sociology Thom Curtis’s 2000 analysis of changes in child abuse statistics following several past hurricanes was posted on several organization websites following hurricanes Katrina and Rita to help educate relief workers about stress syndromes associated with catastrophes.

"Our role," reiterates McArthur, "is to go in and look at necessary restructuring and redevelopment from a scientific and technical basis that relief agencies may not have."

Janine Tully is a Hawaiʻi freelance writer

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