Balancing the Cost of Disasters

July 16, 2020

By Brock Parker

Dr. Silvana Croope smiling.During extreme events, such as a global pandemic or natural disaster, financial resources can become strained. Many governments are self-insured, and a growing number of incidents can hinder their abilities to help local regions and municipalities financially recover. Understanding and creating different types of strategies to offset those problems is something that needs careful attention.

“There is an economic and a financial impact of risk tolerance that government and businesses have and the never-ending payment of debt because disasters continue to happen,” said Dr. Silvana Croope, an expert in infrastructure resilience with the Alabama Transportation Institute’s Transportation Policy Research Center. “All of these are parts of very complex problems that we need to investigate and research to see if we can help improve things much more than they are today.”

Larger and more well-known disasters can cost billions of dollars, but what some people don’t take into consideration are many smaller and generally unnoticed events that can also quickly add up. Croope said that’s where agencies need to start looking and coming up with new strategies to mitigate costs.

“We see this on a small scale, for example, when FEMA recommends flood insurance for individuals, they want to know how many times disasters happen in a certain place and collect the data if they get struck time and again,” said Croope. “If you show repetitive damage, either you strengthen your design or change it. There’s not going to be more money for them (the government) to keep on giving it to you because there’s no positive return of investment.”

In the transportation realm, one of the biggest problems is flooding. Croope said she is a fan of strategies that look into the future, and one of those is buried infrastructure, or putting things underground. While there might be some larger costs upfront with installation, there will be fewer chances for those utilities, such as power lines, fiber optics and portable water, to be damaged as long as they are properly protected.

Another strategic consideration includes the creation of floating structures that are on or close to water, such as bridges, roadways and potentially even cities. Croope’s experiences in Delaware during Hurricane Sandy highlighted the differences in coastal area needs versus areas without much water. The bridge spanning Indian River Inlet was built high above the water, but near it was an old road on level land. The bridge wasn’t damaged nor tilted by the hurricane, but the lower road wasn’t as fortunate.

“We had a problem,” said Croope. “A ton of sand was covering the traditional roadway that was completing the pathway to that bridge, so that roadway wasn’t able to be used for a few days. That is a main path for tourists, residents and for supply chains, and that sand basically disrupted all access.”

Inspired by that experience, her research at The University of Alabama involves working with a new type of inexpensive sensor that can be installed at multiple points around roadways and other transportation assets. The traditional system for environmental sensing of federal highways is called the Road Weather Information System. It captures different types of data such as wind, humidity, temperature and water. Croope said one of those units can cost upward of $300,000, which includes the system, engineering and construction. That high price also extends over time with continuous high-dollar disbursements for maintenance and operations, and that limits the number of units that can be purchased for a given area.

According to Croope, the Department of Homeland Security began investing in newer sensors that drastically reduced that cost to approximately $1,000 per unit. However, with support from FEMA, she and other university researchers were able to re-engineer a design that focused on dry surface roadways, lowered the cost to around $150 per unit and establish a small network of them for less than $500. This makes it financially feasible for more than one sensor to be deployed in a given area, which in turn allows for more data to be collected, new strategies to be developed and a potential reduction in future damage and insurance payouts. The lower cost also helps a sensor to be replaced and data collection and other data-dependent services to continue if it is somehow damaged or washed away during a flooding event.

“The beauty of these sensors is that being so tiny, if they get dragged out of their location, we can put another one at a very low cost,” said Croope. “Decreasing the financial risk and then being able to replace that, it’s not something that you’re going to cry about because you don’t have funding anymore.”

Croope said exploring new options, such as these sensors, can help governments and agencies better utilize how their dollars are spent in the present versus after a disaster.

“If you think that $300,000 would be an investment cost for one, when that amount of funding is put into these lower cost sensors, we can probably deploy them all over the state,” said Croope. “This is how you actually are able to lower the cost to get to these types of solutions.”