NSF Funds Social Work, Engineering Collaboration to Fight Flooding

U.S. Soldiers assigned to the Texas Army National Guard arrive in Houston to aid citizens in areas heavily flooded by the storms of Hurricane Harvey Aug. 27, 2017. (1st Lt. Zachary West/U.S. Army National Guard)

An interdisciplinary collaboration at UT is confronting storm-related flooding and runoff, an increasingly important topic highlighted by recent devastation in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and the looming threat of Hurricane Irma.

The National Science Foundation is providing $1.8 million in funding for the College of Social Work and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering project.

Their idea combines sensors, monitoring, and flood controls, with civic planning, and the cultivation of public buy-in to produce a “smart” system capable of adjusting flow and storage as the situation demands, while encouraging the use of natural elements such as trees, wetlands, and ponds to slow flooding and erosion.

“There are a variety of different systems in place around the country, and many ideas for how to use nature as part of new systems,” said Jon Hathaway, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “The challenge is that some areas are more willing to adopt new practices than others.”

While little could have been done to prevent flooding in the face of the 50-plus inches of rain that Harvey brought, systems such as the one UT is proposing could contain or mitigate damage from most other storms.

California Air National Guard with the 129th Rescue Wing continue to conduct water rescue operations in Vidor, Texas, Aug. 31, 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The Guardsmen are patrolling the area in motorboats, looking for people who are trapped in their homes or on rooftops because of the massive flooding. Once the residents are safely in the boats, the Guardsmen provide any necessary medical care and transport them to the nearest shelter. (U.S. Army National Guard)

California Air National Guard with the 129th Rescue Wing continue to conduct water rescue operations in Vidor, Texas, Aug. 31, 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The Guardsmen are patrolling the area in motorboats, looking for people who are trapped in their homes or on rooftops because of the massive flooding. Once the residents are safely in the boats, the Guardsmen provide any necessary medical care and transport them to the nearest shelter. (U.S. Army National Guard)

By adjusting automatically in real time, the system would allow municipalities to take water from the hardest hit areas and pump it to places that weren’t under as much stress, in much the same way that TVA controls flooding on a larger scale.

By being able to control water in a more data-backed manner, flooding could be drastically reduced and systems could even store excess water for uses besides consumption—such as farming—in times of water shortage.

The effort also looks at environmental factors that have contributed to flood risks.

Areas such as wetlands, grasslands, and even barren fields that might normally slow erosion and water flow have been replaced by highways and parking lots, which have the opposite effect of speeding both processes.

Going “back to nature” could help reverse the damage, but it can be hard to sway opinions to adapt to new ideas.

“What does the public think about these systems? What are the barriers to adoption? How do experiences with flooding or trust in local government matter?” said Lisa Reyes Mason, assistant professor in the College of Social Work. “We hope to answer these questions and start to identify directions for policy and decision-making in this critical area.”

Mason pointed out that entrenched feelings about the government or about running public utilities through private property vary greatly from one area to another and influence adaptation, which makes understanding individual cities and how to approach them key to the project’s success.

CONTACT:

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)