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TROY, N.Y.—A six-year, $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will allow researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to investigate how different civil infrastructures within a city or county—such as roadways, water and power utilities, hospitals, banks, or law enforcement—interact with each other and with the natural environment after a disaster. Using complex computer modeling to develop this "system of systems," the researchers will create software that will allow infrastructure managers and emergency response organizations to better understand their interdependency and better coordinate their efforts, and in turn be better equipped and more prepared to respond to all types of disasters.

Managers of infrastructure systems will be able to use the software to assess the resiliency of their own system by taking into account its reliance on other infrastructure systems and natural systems. Similarly, organizations responsible for coordinating emergency response efforts will be able to use the software to model different event scenarios to determine how the services they provide impact and are impacted by other systems and organizations.

"With the new, richer perspective, emergency response officials will be able to formulate better and more prepared plans for dealing with and mitigating the effects of disasters," said William Wallace, Ph.D., professor of decision sciences and engineering systems at Rensselaer, who will be leading the project. "Our models will help people make better and more timely decisions."

The software will be based on National Science Foundation-funded research following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Wallace worked on that project, which included collecting data to understand the impact of the attack on the area’s critical infrastructures, identifying failures, modeling response strategies, and developing a prototype decision support tool that integrated GIS data.

The $1.1 million grant is a component of the new Center for the Study of Natural Disasters, Coastal Infrastructure, and Emergency Management (NaDiCIEM), a DHS Center of Excellence led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss. The center will be responsible for conducting research and enhancing the nation’s ability to safeguard populations, properties, and economies as it relates to the consequences of catastrophic natural disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, droughts, and wildfires. Examples include protecting at-risk infrastructures and populations, enhancing post-catastrophic recovery, improving information sharing and communication, and enhancing critical supply chain resiliency.